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Draft Position Paper for World Social Forum, Mumbai, 2004

Transforming the Patriarchal System to a Human Rights System, through human rights education and learning 

Prepared by a working group comprised of members of PDHRE. An idea endorsed on Women’s Day 2003, by Sergio Vieira de Mello.)


Patriarchy is an ideology and a Hierarchy. Based on the assertion of superiority of elite men to other men and of all men to women it has historically dominated the world, its resources and ideas and continues to do so as it gives control and advantages to men that it withholds form women and vulnerable groups. Historically it has taken many different forms. Today we can day that Patriarchy dominates social organization and exerts control over all human institutions including, the political, economic, and knowledge systems, which in turn perpetuate and reinforce patriarchy. Considerations of race, class and gender may all be analyzed as of patriarchy’s system of oppression.

We realize that freedom from oppression in all its forms cannot be realized as long as we continue to work through institutions, language and ideas that are fundamentally grounded in the ideology of patriarchy. As human rights educators, we believe that we need to move the patriarchal instructions to human rights institutions. For this reason we ask you to join in an inquiry and strategy planning on perception of patriarchy. How it affects most human endeavors and how we can learn to overcome the restraints it imposes on human rights, social justice and peace.

An Invitation: This statement is issued as an invitation to join in an inquiry into the potential of human rights education to overcome the vicious cycle of humiliation arising from a patriarchal global order.

The Problematique: We see the world to be caught in a web of interrelated problems which taken together constitute a threat to the very survival of humanity. The ecological balance of planet Earth continues to deteriorate as a consequence of human actions and human choices. Globalization advances the interests of the wealthy as it pushes the poor deeper into misery and deprivation. Centralization of power into the hands of a few at local, national and global levels divide the world into the privileged and the deprived, a few powerful elites, presiding over the systematic oppression of the powerless multitudes. Ever increasing Militarization, the continued sophistication of weaponry and the spread of terrorism have brought the world to unprecedented levels of violence, making it possible for every conflict to ignite a final conflagration. All of these lethal conditions result from human choices, state policies and institutional procedures. So, too, all of these conditions arise from and contribute to the violation of universal, integral and interrelated human rights, thus impeding the most potent source of an alternative set of life affirming world conditions. Our task is to change the structures that today dominate in global relations, states and communities, within the family, among individuals. To achieve that, we need to identify mechanisms and specifities of oppressive systems and the structures that work within it and to search for a process and tools that will dismantle the existing structures.

We seek to uncover and illuminate the causes of the lethal conditions that comprise this problematique and to devise ways in which human rights education can contribute to the realization of the alternative life affirming conditions. We believe in transformative nature of human rights; human rights and human rights education can serve as a powerful tool for efficiently changing existing structures and relations.

The Hypothesis:

Many social and political phenomena are based in dominance, supremacy, force, exclusion and alike mechanisms. We are strongly convinced that a primary and essential cause of the hierarchical structure underlying the global problematique is to be found in patriarchy which we identify as the central organizing principle of most human institutions. Behind all forms of discrimination and dominance, racism and patriarchy included, there are theories and practices of supremacy. These theories tend to rationalize structures in place that enable different forms of exploitation and present them as "natural." Fundamental theories appear in different forms of scriptures, be it the Bible, "the science" or the texts of popular culture. They create and rationalize the difference between people with different skin, different culture, between men and women. These theories become the basis for dominance, supremacy, exploitation and they create the space for human hierarchy. We want to address these theories and practices/discourses in all the forms in which they appear, but looking at the same time to patriarchal system as the historical and structural root of inequality between people. We believe that relationship between men and women, embedded in patriarchy, is the oldest form of supremacy and one of the basic models for all discriminations and disempowerments.

We look at patriarchy as the system that facilitates ground for other forms of supremacy, hierarchy and exploitation, but we are all born in patriarchy as a system that sets the power regime between men and women and helps accepting and fueling other power regimes. As the oldest form of supremacy, based in the notion of "biological differences" between sexes, it formed the notion of inequality and hierarchy among people and made all of them look "natural." It conditions us to be sexist, racist, nationalists and to accept these differences as "inborn. Based on the assertion of the superiority of elite men to other men and of all men to all women, it has prevailed in most societies through most of human history. In whatever its form and in whatever historical period, patriarchy manifests a set of common characteristics, and tends to function so as to appear to be essential to cultural integrity or in the natural order, generally accepted without question, certainly without critical consciousness by the societies which it dominates.

Even women’s human rights movements had raised few challenges to the patriarchal socio-cultural core of most societies. Efforts to achieve equality have been sought within the very framework, which continues to place lesser human value on women than men, failing to establish full gender equality in both public and private spheres. Nor have the international institutions, themselves embedded in the patriarchal core, challenged this organizing principle as they identified and encoded human rights standards within the very patriarchy we perceive to be the tap root of human rights violations. We believe that limits on the progress of the realization of human rights have in large part been a consequence of the failure to take into account the core, organizing principle of patriarchy.

In what ever its cultural or historic setting patriarchy is characterized by hierarchies, that divide and separate human beings by categories of gender, class, economic status and political power, categories as defined by the patriarchy, locating all men and women in particular places in the patriarchal hierarchy. The hierarchy is most readily evident in the public institutions, which govern economic and political affairs and assign higher social and cultural value to powerful men. Patriarchy has created institutional structures to maintain and reinforce itself and the culture that rises from these structures. IIn some societies a very small minority of women are accepted into policy making positions, so long as they do not challenge the fundamental patriarchal order. Possibilities for such challenge are rare and limited, primarily because the patriarchal establishment in the form of the state claims and exercises a monopoly on the use of force. Such challenges as those raised by rebellion against the state are also primarily patriarchal, even when women and children play an active role in the rebellion. When rebellions have achieved the stage of revolution, women seldom if ever are accorded full political and economic equality in the reconstituted state which in its turn claims the state’s monopoly on the use of force.

This monopoly, whether openly manifest or implied, enables patriarchy to control resources, establish social and cultural values, the production and application of knowledge, the making of myths and meaning and the devising of the historic narratives by which peoples, nations, ethnic and religious groups identify themselves and assume their places in the world.

Thus, it is that populations tend to continue to accede to the patriarchy and to accept its definitions of reality and its delineation of social roles, including and especially, gender roles. This uncritical acceptance on the part of the multitudes, we believe, accounts also for their failure to take adequate action (with the exception of the committed activists of global civil society) to overcome the conditions we have identified as the global problematique.

We hold that these characteristics serve to disadvantage the majority of the world’s population, both men and women, and that a full and critical gender analysis of the global problematique would help to reveal, how both men and women, all but the privileged global elites are disadvantaged by this situation. Consequently we advocate a critical inquiry into the nature and functioning of patriarchy in order to develop a public consciousness of its implication in the causes of human suffering and human rights violations, and to awaken all to the possibilities for a viable alternative that are to be found in the pursuit and realization of human rights.

We believe that partial improvements within the system of oppression do not change the paradigm. Racial equality will be possible only if all the other inequalities are being dealt with, patriarchal inequality included. It is our conviction that human rights offers an alternative organizing principle and has the potential to unfold a new narrative that would serve to transcend the divisions of the present patriarchal order with a new level of common human identity grounded in the organizing principle of universal human dignity and the assertion of the equal human value of human beings in all their diversities and differences. Our hypothesis is that to realize this potential, all societies must not only become critically aware of the nature and consequences of patriarchy, they must also be educated in the meaning, purposes, standards and mechanisms for the realization of universal human rights.

The Inquiry:

The inquiry we propose is grounded in the central query of how human rights education might be developed and delivered so as to advance most effectively and expeditiously this critical awareness of patriarchy and knowledge of human rights. Most particularly, we need to look into the means by which men and women can learn together to develop the requisite consciousness and knowledge and how they might cooperate in the endeavor to educate others and to engage in an intentional process of cultural, social, economic and political change that could bring about a transformation from human institutions cast within a patriarchal paradigm to a global society conceived and constructed within a non patriarchal human rights paradigm?

1.How might we test our hypotheses about patriarchy and human rights as organizing principles?

2.What must be learned and addressed to understand and change patriarchy and its functions?

3.How can human rights standards and mechanisms be used more effectively to change the patriarchal order?

4.What are some specific ways in which human rights standards can be used to diagnose and understand patriarchal structures and relationships?

5.What are various ways in which this inquiry might be raised in different cultures and countries? Who should initiate the inquiry?

6.What other agents might we approach to join in this inquiry?

7. How can we together specify the queries and plan strategies of human right education that are culturally respectful, educationally sound and politically effective?

We invite you to join in this inquiry.

The Project:

We seek your cooperation in developing the particulars of this inquiry and in planning the proposed human rights education strategy. We hope to bring together a working group of men and women of various cultural and professional backgrounds to design this project and to work together to plan its course, identify its specific objectives and seek the funding to assure a process of integrity and effectiveness that might move us toward the transformational goal we believe is both urgently necessary to undertake and readily possible to achieve. (Women and men in all countries and societies establish discussion groups to discuss the transformative process, its benefit and goals. symptoms and causes, to join in transforming the Patriarchal system to a Human Rights System.)

We would appreciate you comments!

For further information and discussion contact Shulamith Koenig pdhre@igc.org


For more information, please contact PDHRE:
The People's Movement for Human Rights Education, 526 West 111th Street, New York, NY 10025
tel: 212.749-3156; fax: 212.666-6325; e-mail: pdhre@igc.org