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Celebrating International Human Rights Day by saying "No"

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Those who reject violence within their own families are human rights activists

Note: This post is a mirror of my column in today's Pasadena Weekly, celebrating December 10th, 2009 -- the 61st anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I offer heartfelt thanks to my editor, Kevin Uhrich, for making this possible.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a master at standing up and saying "No." A champion for the little man and woman, she managed to transcend a time where custom dictated that women be all smiles and all "Yes." Women were not regarded as equals. People were not accustomed to seeing or hearing a powerful woman. Roosevelt's "No" to poverty, subjugation and cruelty can still be heard around the world through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) because she chaired its drafting committee.

This week marks the 61st anniversary of the UDHR, a document which embodies the dream that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. The UDHR specifically -- because of Roosevelt's leadership -- included women in those rights, a not-so-obvious inclusion at the time because, as even now in the 21st century, there were countries and men who do not include women and girls under the human rights umbrella. Women and girls are woefully unequal all over the world, as well as here at home.

My life's work is based on the Third Article of the UDHR:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

I'm a "security of person" advocate. What does "security of person" mean? Simply put, you and I have the right to be safe. Whether safety is provided by police or ourselves, we have the right to be left alone. We have the right to say "No" to that which would harm us; rights to stay out of harm's way, whether that danger comes from a stranger attacking us in our neighborhoods or from violent individuals in our own homes.

My specific mission has been teaching women and girls to protect their own rights, especially in the face of abuse: verbal, emotional and yes, physical. My favorite motto is "Think globally, act locally ... your body is as local as you can get.

However, it is in families where human rights are often violated, especially if the larger culture permits the violation. Home is where we learn so many things: our worth, our place in the world and whether we are equal in dignity and rights. Home is where we learn whether we can be safe and secure. Mrs. Roosevelt said, "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world."

One of the most poignant human rights movies this year highlights the fundamental power of saying "No" as a human right and backing that up if necessary. If you have not seen "Precious" yet, please do so, perhaps in celebration of the anniversary of the UDHR. Directed by Lee Daniels and based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire, "Precious" is a testament to securing human rights individual by individual, family by family, neighborhood by neighborhood, "in small places, close to home."

Without giving too much of the story away, the protagonist, Precious, lives in a toxic environment; the poison of her world almost overwhelms her humanity. When Precious is finally treated well by people who respect her, treat her equally and with dignity, she experiences the freedom of love. She finally says "No" to her vile mother, fights back and leaves. You know with certainty by the end of the movie that it takes only one person to end the legacy and cycle of violence in a family forever. The individual who says "No" to family violence, within the family itself, is a human rights activist.

What excites me most about my work in personal safety is the moment when I see each woman's individual epiphany: that she has the right to protect herself from harm; that no one gets to hurt her or her children, including herself. In Brazil, I had 35 survivors of family violence promise to stop hitting their children in exchange for me teaching them simple, brain-not-brawn skills to defend themselves from assaults. Some women unwittingly pass on family violence when they punish their children physically; kids see that force works in controlling other people. Physical force as self-defense, on the other hand, delivers a consequence to an assailant who expects compliance and obedience from an unequal victim.

When a woman realizes that a man is merely flesh and blood -- no more human than she is -- and that she is potentially dangerous to an attacker, her ability to communicate and to stop the abuse rises exponentially. She says no to abuse, no to raising kids in an environment that violates their human rights, and no to being unequal by virtue of gender. She understands in her bones that equality means freedom.

Eleanor Roosevelt knew that a document of rights was just a beginning. It is up to us to stand up and say "No" for ourselves and others, in all places but especially at home.

If you live in the LA area and are free tonight, please join Pasadena Mayor Bogaard and the United Nations Association Pasadena/Foothills Chapter at the second annual International Human Rights Day celebration at 7 p.m. at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium's Gold Room, 300 E. Green St. I will be the keynote speaker.