Volume 9, Issue 1 & 2
Engendering Human Rights: Cultural and Socio-Economic Realities in Africa. Obioma Nnaemeka and Joy Ezeilo, eds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 320 pp.
Nnameka and Ezeilo provide a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary overview of how context shapes the definition, interpretation, and enforcement of human rights in Africa. The focus of the book is on “engendering” or “developing and producing” human rights in Africa at a time when the universal notion of human rights presents an attractive solution to the problems plaguing postcolonial African states. While the focus of others working in this area, such as Bunch (1990) and Uvin (2004), has been on transforming theory and practice to incorporate feminist, rights-based approaches to development, this text moves the conversation forward by making the argument that the indivisibility of rights demands that attention be directed to cultural rights, socio-economic rights, and policy implementation in order to achieve universal human rights. While all citizens are entitled to human rights, all citizens do not have access to this entitlement. Nor is it always an appropriate goal as the series editor, Chandra Mohanty, suggests. The authors emphasize the understated reality that the lack of access to human rights proportionately impacts women. Despite attempts to regulate human rights with international law, violations abound.
The five sections of the book question the relevance of focusing on the universality versus the indivisibility of human rights. In general, the sources referenced were consistent with the objective of bringing light to core legal documents as well as academic work from a variety of disciplines and regions. However, this edited volume suffers from some common problems. The volume maintains the thread of argument, but the chapters range widely in effectiveness. The diversity of disciplines represented confounds the internal consistency. The concept of human rights is not well defined, nor is it adequately critiqued. For example, the authors do not address the issue of the boundaries or limits of freedom when universal concepts such as human rights are applied to particular cultural contexts. Despite the weaknesses, the book is successful overall. The cogent introduction and impressive collection of articles by scholars and practitioners in fields including law, public health, education, politics, and psychology make the book relevant to a similarly diverse audience.
The core argument about the indivisibility of cultural, socioeconomic, and human rights is clearly defined in the introduction and reinforced through sections III, IV, and V. Section II offers important historical and cultural context for
Section III keeps with the theme of historicism and how historical context influences the structure and efficacy of the health sector in sub-Saharan Africa. de Gruchy and Baldwin-Ragaven, a medical doctor and public health professor, focus on the implementation of human rights, how rights are defined, and by whom in South Africa. Nzenza-Shand interrogates the corollary issue of how “participation, access and information” relate to “culture, justice, and empowerment” and how this relationship is constructed and active outside and inside of Africa based on her public health research work in rural villages in
Section IV expands the core argument about contextualizing rather than universalizing human rights to the girl child. The articles in this section oscillate between the development and implementation of legal apparatus for protecting the rights of girls and female adolescents (Ewelukwa, a law professor, and Osakwe & Nwodo, both English professors) and case studies of child labor and school-related gender-based violence (Babalola & Nwashili, academic activists, and Webster, a teacher). The fifth and final section differs from Parts III and IV because it focuses on a violation of human rights—gender violence. This section would benefit from a section introduction. The first and last chapters of the section address female circumcision from different perspectives and to different ends on issues ranging from language (‘female circumcision’ versus ‘female genital mutilation’) to interventions (‘intervening in phases taking account of lived reality’ versus ‘global campaigns to end the practice’). The middle two chapters on domestic violence both talk about how a private human rights violation can be addressed in a public and state-regulated sphere. I finished the section wanting a chapter that integrates the two perspectives and allows the chapters to be in dialogue with one another.
The final chapter began with a personal reflection on activist work in
The organizational critique does not, however, undermine the important points raised by the edited volume. Nor does it negate the central point that in Africa, the engendering of human rights requires specific attention to history, gender, race and context. The book will fill conceptual lacunas and bridge the human rights and development discourses in the classroom and beyond with case studies, which include lessons which can be applied to other contexts. Engendering Human Rights is an important book because it provides a broader framework for human rights and development. It raises issues such as cultural relativism, the universality of problems, and relates the human rights discourse to women and the girl child explicitly. This book shows that if we do not pay attention to the socioeconomic and cultural context of women, the girl child, and socially excluded groups when defining human rights, the entitlement is bankrupt.
Jasmine M. Waddell