By Nina Grotch
“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. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking at the UN in 1958 on the ten-year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) highlighted the smaller, more personal spaces where human rights are upheld or are violated: the home, the workplace and the school. Most notably, she included women and children in the equation of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes two specific references to women. The Preamble states, “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” (emphasis mine). Article 16 mentions women in the context of the right to marriage. More generally, Article 2 references “sex” as a category to be included in these protections. “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Women’s rights are human rights.
Now, as we approach the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UDHR, there are important questions we need to address as educators: how do we frame the issue of women’s rights as one of human rights? How does the #MeToo movement fit into this? How do we as educators, discuss this provocative topic in ways that dig deeper than the headlines of glittering celebrities and Hollywood? Finally, how can we position our students to understand the complicated issues that still face women and girls today?
What is #MeToo?
“In 2006, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing. Using the idea of “empowerment through empathy,” the #MeToo movement was ultimately created to ensure survivors know they're not alone in their journey.” In 2017, this movement swelled and gained media attention when several high-profile Hollywood actresses shared their own stories of sexual harassment and violence. Alyssa Milano used the hashtag in a tweet that was retweeted over 500,000 times, and #MeToo was used by more than 4.7 million people on Facebook within the first 24 hours. The message and power of the “#MeToo” resonated with women and girls (primarily, but not exclusively) from around the world.
The #MeToo movement effectively highlighted the shocking prevalence of experiences of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. These narratives came from all backgrounds, professions, and nationalities. The movement seeks to promote empathy and understanding and to address and unpack the structural problems that create the foundation for harassment, discrimination and violence. The intersections of sexism, classism, misogyny, racism and homophobia must all be addressed to fully understand, and to combat this problem.
Schools, Title IX and #MeToo
The #MeToo movement is incredibly relevant for our students. Sexual harassment and discrimination also infect school communities. Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sex, was enacted in 1972 yet the problems it sought to redress are all too common.
“Sexual harassment is part of everyday life in middle and high schools. Nearly half (48 percent) of the students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010–11 school year, and the majority of those students (87 percent) said it had a negative effect on them.”
A study from the American Association of University Women, Crossing the Line highlights the prevalence of the problem of sexual harassment at school. Reported harassment ranges from sexist comments and jokes to assault and rape. Girls are more frequently the targets of this abuse. Similarly, homophobic and anti- LGBTQ harassment at schools remains a key concern. These issues impact students, teachers, and administrators. How can we use this opportunity to examine and address these problems with our students?
Students who experience sexual harassment and bullying at school are negatively impacted in many ways that may or may not be visible to educators. These effects may include loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, decreased participation in class, and absenteeism. Clearly, these are all issues that impact student confidence and performance. Perhaps most importantly, students who feel that bullying and harassment is ignored by their teachers may be even more strongly impacted. Students need to feel safe to show up, participate, and learn. Addressing these concerns and providing a wider context for the “#MeToo” Movement is crucial.
Opportunities Within the #MeToo Movement at Schools
While potentially “controversial” and challenging, teaching about the #MeToo movement can provide opportunities for students to:
Examine sexism and learn to recognize images and language harmful and or derogatory to girls and women
Examine the way racism and other forms of prejudice impact girls and women
Examine both the positive impact and the shortcomings of legislation
Make connections to their own communities and their own lives
These lessons and conversations may be heated and charged but can provide young people with a catalyst to and a forum to engage and become active. There are many instances of students stepping up to leadership roles locally, nationally, and even internationally. Pointing students to these examples offers solutions and inspirations to challenging the status quo.
Here are a few resources for you—from lesson plans to examples of youth activism. Do you have other examples from the news? From your school? Please share your ideas and experiences with engaging students in activism.
Black Women’s Activism and the Long History Behind #MeToo | Facing History and Ourselves
Malala’s Story | Malala Fund
Ms. Classroom | Ms. Magazine
“The Reckoning: Teaching About the #MeToo Moment and Sexual Harassment” | Natalie Proulx, Christopher Pepper and Katherine Schulten via The New York Times
Resources for Teens | About Face
Sexual Harassment and the Next Generation: How to Talk with Young People | Anti-Defamation League
What #MeToo Means to Teenagers | Wendy Lu via The New York Times
“Women on the March: A Lesson Plan on Imagining the Future of Feminism” | Roxie Salamon-Abrams via The New York Times