In 1948 the UN created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In it, the organisation enshrined a range of fundamental rights, including the right to own property and the right to a nationality. However, the very first article of the declaration is that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." This declaration of fundamental equality sends a powerful message that has been at the heart of some of the most important changes of the 20th century.
Since the signing of this declaration the world has seen some significant changes, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa, as well as general improvements in gender equality and LGBT rights. However, this progress is far from complete and discrimination and inequity are still major problems to this day. Women remain underrepresented in almost all political systems, LGBT people still struggle to claim the same rights as their heterosexual peers, and social exclusion based on race and ethnicity is still common.
The right time for rights
As is so often the case, this inequality is very unequally distributed. Whilst same-sex marriage is now legal in many Western European countries, in Nigeria and India LGBT people face persecution from both society and their governments. Equally, whilst over 50% of the Rwandan parliament is female, in places like Brazil or Japan women make up only a tiny fraction of the government. Despite the unambiguous message of the UN Declaration, progress has been far from universal. Though these challenges are certainly not easy to overcome, the differing levels of progress point to another problem.
Complete equality is often seen as an ideal that is not suited to the real world. In some instances other issues are deemed far more pressing, such as famine or war. In other cases, the goal of universal equality is actively opposed because it is against the established customs of particular groups - as is often argued in relation to LGBT rights. In all these cases proponents of equality are told to limit their expectations of what they can realistically achieve.
Essentially, this argument suggests that it is simply not the right time or place to talk about equal rights. This is a dangerous and damaging approach to take. Whilst there are wide variety of tangible problems that people face on a daily basis, discrimination is a major factor in many of them. Tackling it is, therefore, not just the right thing to do, but it could also contribute to a range of other development goals.
Promoting equality is not separate from, but is actually vitally important to tackling a variety of important issues. For example, research done by Chatham House, an independent think tank, found that promoting equal rights and opportunities for women can contribute massively to economic growth and poverty eradication. Equally, in crisis situations, promoting gender equality is extremely important. Here, women and girls face a number of additional challenges and, without an emphasis on equality and specialised support, thousands will suffer needlessly.
Often, NGOs and world governments approach the promotion of equal rights by placing pressure on the leaders of countries that are seen to discriminate against certain groups. Most recently this has been seen in Uganda, where new laws that criminalise homosexuality have led many donors to cut aid to the country. Though this approach does have an effect, real change will only come from within. Luckily, you don't have to look far for success stories.
It was only in 1967 that the UK government decriminalised male homosexuality, but last year, less than 50 years later, the majority of the population were in full support of same-sex marriage. We've come a long way and this progress has largely been down to the success of campaigners in changing the way LGBT people are viewed in the UK. Whilst there is still a lot further to go, it is worth remembering that this progress has stemmed from internal societal change rather than external sanctions. It's always the right time to talk about equality.
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