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Knowledge as a Tool in Human Rights Activism; India's Poor Agitate for Equality, Justice

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Dr. Monisha Bajaj, Jessica Carvalho Morris and Caroline Bettinger-López

From left, Dr. Monisha Bajaj, Jessica Carvalho Morris and Caroline Bettinger-López. (Photo: Miami Law) Full-Size Photo

Global economists use the term "India rising" to describe the economic boom among India's middle class, part of the growing financial power of the second most populous country in the world.

But for Dr. Monisha Bajaj, Ed.D., an Assistant Professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, "India rising" does not remotely describe the 455 million people living on less than $1.25 a day in India's marginalized populations. In dire poverty and often abused, many succumb to fear and despair, she said, and feel incapable of pushing back against the discrimination they experience or observe.

To address such issues, Dr. Bajaj wrote "Schooling for Social Change: The Rise & Impact of Human Rights Education in India," which won the 2012 Jackie Kirk Outstanding Book Award from the Comparative and International Education Society. Dr. Bajaj visited Miami Law recently to deliver a talk as part of the International Law Lecture Series, which is hosted by the International Graduate Law Programs.

Caroline Bettinger-López, an Associate Professor of Clinical Legal Education and Director of Miami Law's Human Rights Clinic, introduced Dr. Bajaj to the audience. "We want law students to know both the power and limitations of the law," Professor Bettinger-López said. "Many see education as the solution for remedying some of the problems we see in their community. We want to encourage law students to think about those remedies, within our own institutions and our own communities."

To complete the book, Dr. Bajaj spent two years conducting extensive research, including more than 80 interviews with policy makers and people working in non-governmental organizations. "The main questions guiding this project were to understand why human rights education has become so popular in India, and to understand the impact on the individuals learning," Dr. Bajaj said.

During the discussion, Dr. Bajaj mentioned children in India who used their knowledge of human rights to back up claims of discrimination and inequality. In one case, a young girl who was being sexually abused used a human rights casebook that contained helpful hotline numbers to call for help.

"Students feel like they have access to report something," Dr. Bajaj said. "A lot of people talk about shame and stigma. They feel they must have done something wrong to deserve a certain fate. But now, having something printed about human rights in a textbook alongside math and history legitimizes human rights, especially in a community where not everyone is literate or has access to these materials. It was taken more seriously than I expected to find."

Dr. Bajaj's research also saw a transformative shift in the way teachers treated students who belong to lower social castes. Many teachers used their salaries to send their own children to better schools, creating a sense of detachment from their own pupils.

"I focused on a lot of 'untouchable' groups," she said. "There is a tremendous amount of income inequality, and certainly access to education reflects people's ability to attend better schools, as opposed to the marginalized schools I was focusing on."

During the lecture, Dr. Bajaj touched also on areas of inequality within India's education system: discrimination based on gender and skin color; teacher absenteeism, under which teachers bribe officials into continuing to pay them despite not showing up for work; and caste determination, where students of a lower caste are sometimes made to clean bathrooms instead of sitting in class and learning.

Her research led to a few lingering questions: What about backlash against the increasing activism of marginalized youth? As reform spreads, what vision of human rights education will dominate in the future – a passive knowledge that is more centered on human rights as a symbol of global citizenship, or a grassroots activist education, meant to be participatory and interactive?

While the answers to those questions may not be clear now, the human rights education being taught in India is already transforming lives. Many students start human rights organizations in their respective schools, and the action they take in their communities is sometimes featured in human rights casebooks.

Jessica Carvalho Morris, director of the International Graduate Law Programs, said that Dr. Bajaj's talk was a great way to end the International Lecture Series for this semester. "Together with the Human Rights Clinic," she said, "we were able to bring students from other university departments, including the School of Education, to discuss such an interesting and important topic – human rights education."

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Dr. Monisha Bajaj at Miami Law

Dr. Monisha Bajaj at Miami Law, addressing human rights issues in India. (Photo: Miami Law) Full-Size Photo