October 15th, 2015, was quite the busy day for UConn. Campus seemed to be buzzing with excitement in anticipation of the presentation that evening of the Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights to Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, and Tostan, a human rights organization based in Senegal, in West Africa. The Human Rights Institute (HRI) was very busy with people coming and going from our office, and everyone was all dressed up and excited to hear Molly Mulchang (Director of Tostan) and President Clinton speak later that evening.
To start the day’s events, I had the opportunity to sit in on the question and answer session with Molly Mulchang about Tostan and what inspired her to start such an influential organization. She invited us to engage in dialogue throughout the whole presentation, repeatedly asking “Well, what do you all think? What do you want to know? What questions do you have?” It really set the tone for an engaging conversation. Overall, she described Tostan as an international human rights organization dedicated to empowering individuals to pursue sustainable development, engage with human rights, and promote human dignity through education.
Through their “Community Empowerment Program,” participants from local communities willing to commit to a three-year human-rights-based course become representatives of the Tostan mission and bring their education back to their communities. Motivated by the African proverb “To understand one person, you need to understand the community and the impacts of beliefs and customs of people in that community,” Tostan seeks to engage participants as ambassadors of human rights to educate individuals in both their immediate communities and throughout their extended family networks, which reach beyond state-borders in West Africa. The curriculum consists of instilling values such as “Jámm” (peace), “Mbobo” (unity), “Fayda” (self-respect and dignity) (in the Woloff language), voiced by community members as important, rather than solely using the verbiage of human rights doctrines. Through song, dance, poetry and theater, Tostan uses these values to empower individuals to realize their rights.
Finally, Molly shared stories about Tostan’s participants who feel empowered by human rights and take these notions back to their communities to combat violence against women and girls and child marriage. To date, hundreds of communities have taken the stance of “no more” by prohibiting violence against women as a violation of their human rights. For women, men, boys, and girls in West Africa, human rights have been a tool for self-realization and community empowerment. As Molly ended her presentation, she left us with this thought: “I hope you are learning about how human rights can change who you are and how you live your life.”
With these words in mind, I went into the Dodd Prize event at Jorgensen that evening, excited to hear more about what Molly would say about Tostan, and, of course, to hear President Clinton speak about his dedication to human rights around the world. Standing before a time-lapse projection of a day in front of the entrance to the Dodd Center, Provost Mun Choi gave introductory remarks, bringing Senator Chris Dodd to the stage. Senator Dodd then introduced President Clinton and Tostan as incredible examples of human rights defenders and promoters in our world.
Following Senator Dodd’s remarks, Molly took the stage to talk about Tostan. Highlighting the importance of listening to community members and seeing that human rights can empower all individuals, she emphasized that real change comes from the extended family and community members who believe in enacting changes. Finally, she emphasized that over 7,000 communities in eight different West African countries, through 91 declarations, have said they will stop the practices of female genital cutting and child marriage. She ended her remarks emphasizing the wise words of a community member, Binta, who describes human rights as giving people the power of choice. With that, Molly dedicated the award to Binta and all of the other human rights defenders in the world who are organizing to fulfill the human right to education and dignity for all.
After a brief introduction, President Bill Clinton took the stage, receiving a standing ovation before his remarks even started. After that, you could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium, it was so quiet. People were on the edge of their seats, ready to hear what President Clinton had to say.
He began by reminding us of his spending $3 billion of our tax dollars (which gave everyone a good chuckle) to finish the sequencing of the human genome in 2000. This project determined that various characteristics of difference we often assign meaning to (height, gender, body type, race), are all embodied in .05% of each of our DNA. “We are 99.5% the same. From the dawn of time, humans have spent 99% of their time thinking about the .05% of difference, rather than the 99.5% we are the same.” He described the world we live in as “obsessed with defining the other” during times of insecurity and instability. Somehow, this provides humans a kind of natural comfort in times of stress.
With this, President Clinton moved into discussing how human rights rhetoric and concepts have helped create a “way to share the world in positive terms” despite the differences we tend to dwell upon. Given the interconnected and globalized nature of the world we live in today, he highlighted the importance of adopting a framework that creates space for finding common ground among different countries, cultures and identities. “We are living in a world that is interdependent and human rights are more important than ever, because [they determine] the world our kids and grandkids will live in.”
As we face this responsibility to ensure a secure world for future generations, Clinton also cautioned us to “not be paralyzed by the fact that we can’t change everything.” Given all of the humanitarian crises of the past few decades, from the Bosnian War to the modern day civil war in Syria, to the ubiquity of instances of violence against women throughout the globe, it seems the modern age has never—at any point in time—been far from free of human rights abuses. Despite that, we are quick to separate “us” from “them,” especially in the context of conflict, resulting in the oppression of marginalized groups and human rights abuses. But, he assured us, there are possible solutions that protect human rights.
With this, President Clinton emphasized the power we have to make a difference in people’s lives and assure that their human rights are fulfilled and protected. Echoing Molly’s remarks on human rights as empowering individuals with choice, he claimed that protecting human rights is not an impossible goal sought by individual actors who are powerless. Rather, it gives individuals the ability to live the life they want. And when people can choose how to live their lives, they are less likely to commit human rights abuses against other individuals. Empowered individuals can end the cycle of human rights violations.
In his concluding remarks, President Clinton reminded us of the power we have in ensuring the protection of human rights. Directly acknowledging the instances when he was unable to act during his presidency, he vocalized his failures, implying his culpability: “Once you have the power to do something, you are saddled with the responsibility of inaction.” With this responsibility and power to act also comes the need to develop a community where differences are not polarizing but, rather, something “important and interesting.” Our diversity makes us stronger, and these differences create valuable dissonance in conversations of social change. With the various identities, experiences, and societies we live in, we each bring a different perspective to solving the world’s problems, and we need all of these voices to develop effective policies for enacting change. President Clinton left us with these final words: “You all have the power to be soldiers of human rights. I urge you to use that power.”