Human rights: Campaigning for change


With more than 500 Amnesty Youth Groups now active in schools across the UK, Alice Woodhouse looks at why students are engaged by human rights campaigning.

"Young people have an innate sense of what’s fair and not fair. I think that they get that really easily and can be really brilliant campaigners.”

Jo Cobley, head of the Education and Student Team at Amnesty is clear on the reasons the international charity launched its Youth Group programme more than 20 years ago.

Youth group member Jack Owen also sees clear benefits: “It gives you a greater understanding of the world and of world affairs. You get a lot more confidence to make things happen. (From our youth group) many went on to become active members of the student body. They got really good at approaching people and being a friendly face.”

Activities that youth groups get involved with vary hugely. The Kites for Women’s Rights campaign, for example, saw youth groups from across the country create 5,000 paper kites in a bid to raise awareness of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

The kites, which many women in the war-torn country are still banned from flying, were taken to the Houses of Parliament to serve as a reminder to the government to keep women’s rights on the agenda during the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The campaign also lobbied to ensure that women’s voices are heard throughout the peace process. Some kites were photographed with MPs and many were handed to women’s groups in Afghanistan. 

Many youth groups were also engaged in campaigning on behalf of Troy Davis, the US man who was controversially executed in October last year. 

Mr Davis had been on death row for more than 20 years since being convicted in August 1991 of killing an off-duty policeman. He had always protested his innocence and Amnesty maintains that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Since his trial seven out of nine prosecution witnesses had recanted or changed their initial evidence, while in 2007 Amnesty published a report detailing a pattern of police coercion of witnesses ahead of his trial.

Although the campaign was unsuccessful, Ms Cobley holds that the work done by students has helped to change the nature of the debate around the death penalty in North America.

She explained: “I think it really touched young people, especially the flaws around the case itself. The young people were very motivated by that. We often find that working on an individual – about the human rights for an individual – brings it home to young people. It stops being abstract: it’s about applying human rights cases to somebody, who could be their family or their friend.”

Jack, a 6th-former at Freman’s College in Hertfordshire, is a member of his college’s youth group as well as sitting on Amnesty’s Youth Advisory Group. 

He says that setting up a group is not as time-consuming as it might seem: “All the teacher really needs is an email address,” he explained. “If you can get a group of students who are enthusiastic it should run itself. If you get too involved it doesn’t work too well.”

Ms Cobley says they have received positive feedback from teachers and she has also seen the impact on the students. Working with pupils from Eastlea Community School in east London, Ms Cobley noted the “transformative effect” of the Amnesty campaigns.

She told SecEd: “The experience transformed them in terms of confidence. They became more articulate and braver. Teachers felt that it was a really good way to channel their sense of unfairness – they really engaged themselves, which the teachers recognised.

“Seeing that you can challenge things that seem unfair in a successful way changes your reaction to the world and where you see your place in it.”

Learning about injustice is a key benefit of the youth group programme, according to Ms Cobley who believes that it can also help to make young people aware of issues surrounding identity, race and sex.

“I think this helps them stand up to things that are unjust which people around them experience. They have a real sense of achievement when a campaign comes to a conclusion. It’s highly inspiring. But they also really enjoy it. They laugh a lot and enjoy the celebration of their successes. (The students at Eastlea) gained a lot of confidence that they could achieve other things too.”

This is something that Jack has recognised. He believes that belonging to Amnesty has provided him with a wider understanding of his other subjects, notably geography. 

He added: “(We studied) forced evictions from the slums in geography. Amnesty is obviously against it. But we looked at it in geography as a way to try to progress society and develop it.”

For Jack, the two offered contrasting viewpoints, as Amnesty is “emotive”, “empathetic”, and concerned with individual people, as opposed to his geography lessons, which looked at “how society develops”.

He also likes the youth group work because it allows a break from assessment. He continued: “You approach things without a mark scheme – you discuss things in an interesting way without having to do it for an exam. It keeps you involved and interested in the world without being curriculum-led. It keeps you flexible.” 

If schools do not have youth groups, however, individual students can get involved via the Youth Urgent Action Programme – a team of activists aged 11 to 18 who take “rapid action” to protect individuals at risk and end human rights violations. The youth group and rapid action work feed into the wider issue of human rights education and its place in the classroom.

Ms Cobley is clear about the approach that Amnesty encourages: “We apply a respectful, accessible, human rights approach to teaching. We don’t tell people what to think. We give them a chance to debate the issue – although we do tell them what Amnesty’s view is. We want them to come to their own decisions, no matter how old they are.”

Amnesty produces education packs on controversial issues and gives guidance to teachers on how to handle the more difficult and sensitive areas of human rights abuses. Current projects include The Power of Our Voices pack, which will explore protest songs over time and encourage groups to write their own (see here for more details on the Power of Our Voices and related competition).

Another campaign is the fight to secure an international treaty on the arms trade. It is something in which students have become really engaged: “It seemed illogical to them that we have treaties for the trading of stamps and dinosaur bones, but not for arms.”

Ms Cobley added: ‘The impact of having worked on human rights cases and being directly connected to those who you’ve worked on behalf of can stay with you for the rest of your life. You bring your understanding of human rights into whatever work you do. That can only be a good thing.”

  • Alice Woodhouse is a student and the 6th form category winner at the Amnesty International Young Human Rights Reporter of the Year Awards 2012.

 Further information
CAPTION: Kites for Women’s Rights: Students Lottie and Eleanor are pictured with some of the 5,000 paper kites made by Amnesty Youth Groups to raise awareness of women’s rights in Afghanistan.


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