24 November 2009


Human Rights Day 2009 is observed by the international community every year on 10th December. It commemorates the day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights described by Pope John Paul II as "one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time."

Human Rights Day 2009 will focus on non-discrimination. "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". These first few famous words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established 60 years ago the basic premise of international human rights law. Yet today, the fight against discrimination remains a daily struggle for millions around the globe.

"Our main objective is to help promote discrimination-free societies and a world of equal treatment for all," says the High Commissioner who this year will mark Human Rights Day in South Africa.

She encourages people everywhere - including the UN family, governments, civil society, national human rights institutions, the media, educators, and individuals - to seize the opportunity of Human Rights Day 2009 to join hands to embrace diversity and end discrimination.

The realisation of all human rights - social, economic and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights – is hampered by discrimination. All too often, when faced with prejudice and discrimination, political leaders, governments and ordinary citizens are silent or complacent.

The United Nations and Declaration of Human Rights unit of the Edmund Rice International Acting Justly online course gives some background to the historical development of the human rights concept and the role of the United Nations in the promotion of human rights through the Human Rights Council.

Discrimination in the form of Racism is a live issue in Australian schools.
It is interesting that a major report released this week (November 23 2009) by The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) reveals that schools are the primary setting for the experience of racism among young people in Australia. The national study, titled "The Impact of Racism upon the Health and Wellbeing of Young Australians", also finds that 70% of secondary school students experienced at least one form of racism, with those from migrant backgrounds experiencing the highest levels.

Prepared by Deakin University’s Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, some of the report’s key findings include:

 the group most at risk of racism is female first-generation migrants in Years 11 and 12;
 an underlying racism permeates schools across Australia with 80% of participants from non-Anglo
backgrounds and 55% from Anglo backgrounds reporting experiences of racism;
 school education programs around racism are proven to reduce racist behaviour;
 the experience of racism has serious impacts on health and wellbeing.

Another interesting finding is that students who attended a Catholic school were 1.7 times less likely to report experiences of racism than students attending government schools.

Edmund Rice Refugee Services has for 8 years now offered a Homework Help program for students of refugee and recent arrival background in the western area of Melbourne called Brimbank. The majority of the over 800 tutors per year are senior students from 20 mostly Catholic secondary schools in and around Melbourne. These tutor-students sit alongside mainly African background students (Sudanese, Burundian, Ethiopian) but also Burmese background students. After this experience many speak of their excitement, of having their eyes opened, of finding it "interesting", "awesome", "a whole new world". Many want to come back and often do.

Apart from the actual puzzling over Maths problems or a research assignment, the students will often talk about each others' schools, or music they like, or where they come from. They will laugh over a game of UNO or engage minds over Chess or chase a football together after the work. The Mission Statement of the program speaks of students sitting alongside each other for mutual learning.

Many of the schools are keen that their students participate as tutors for the very issues that this FYA report addresses: that they learn to work with and respect Australians of different colour and backgrounds.

I am also aware of the St Vincent de Paul sponsored “Friday Night School” in East Melbourne where children of refugee and new arrival backgrounds from the Richmond flats are tutored by students from Catholic secondary schools in the Inner East of Melbourne.

I would like to think that the Edmund Rice Refugee Services program and the Friday Night School have played their small part in making experiences of racism less likely in Catholic schools in Victoria. It may provide a model for other ways of mutual involvement of school students, that cross cultural and racial divides.
The Foundation for Young Australians Report “At a glance” may be found at http://www.fya.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Impact_of_Racism_At-A-Glance.pdf
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