Culture is the way we think, act and believe. And values and practices that infringe human rights can be found in all cultures-all cultures.
We know that cultural traditions and beliefs are often stronger than laws. We have seen this in our work to end female genital mutilation or cutting and child marriage. In many countries, these practices are illegal-they are against the law-and yet, they persist. They persist because they are deeply rooted within the culture.
And we have found that if we want to make greater progress, we have to engage at a deeper level to facilitate change in the lives of individuals, families and communities. We call it being culturally sensitive.
Human rights are everybody's work and being culturally sensitive and understanding the context is everybody's business.
Cultural sensitivity and engagement do not mean acceptance of harmful traditional practices, or a free pass for human rights abuses-far from it. Understanding cultural realities can reveal the most effective ways to challenge harmful practices and promote human rights.
One of the main messages of this report is that change cannot be imposed from the outside; to be lasting, change must come from within.
Culture is created by people, and people can change culture. Communities have to look at their cultural values and practices and determine whether they impede or promote the realization of human rights. Then, they can build on the positive and change the negative.
There are positive and negative currents in every culture. There are people within every culture who oppose harmful cultural practices and violations of human rights.
As development workers, we have to partner with forces of positive cultural change to protect human rights and human well-being. Our experience shows that we can work closely with these positive forces for cultural change to protect human rights.
We see this clearly in the case of female genital mutilation or cutting. This harmful practice carries significant cultural meaning-it is seen as part of a girl's transition to womanhood. Today, we are working with community leaders to keep the celebratory aspects of the tradition and remove the harmful aspect of cutting.
And we have to change the culture within our own development organizations. We have to take a more participatory, inclusive approach. We have to listen to people. They know what they need and we have to support them.
In this report, we dismiss the assumption that culture is only an obstacle to the realization of human rights. Culture is not a wall to tear down. It is a window to see through, a door to open to make greater progress for human rights.
conclusion, I would like to stress that what happens to the lives of women,
men and young people will shape our common future. Now is the time to begin
a concerted international effort for Reaching Common Ground, as the title
of this year's report suggests.
Development strategies that are sensitive to cultural values can reduce harmful practices against women and promote human rights, including gender equality and women's empowerment, affirms The State of World Population 2008 report from UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, launched 12 November 2008, reports that culture is a central component of successful development of poor countries, and must be integrated into development policy and programming.
The report, which coincides with this year's 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is based on the concept that the international human rights framework has universal validity. Human rights express values common to all cultures and protect groups as well as individuals. The report endorses culturally sensitive approaches to development and to the promotion of human rights, in general, and women's rights, in particular.
"Human rights are everybody's work, and being culturally sensitive and understanding the context is everybody's business," said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA.
Culturally sensitive approaches call for cultural fluency-familiarity with how cultures work, and how to work with them. The report suggests that partnerships-between UNFPA and community-based institutions and leaders, for example-can create effective strategies to promote human rights and end their abuses, such as female genital mutilation or cutting.
Culturally sensitive approaches seek out creative solutions produced within cultures, and work with them. "Communities have to look at their cultural values and practices and determine whether they impede or promote the realization of human rights. Then, they can build on the positive and change the negative," said Ms. Obaid.
The State of World Population cautions that cultural sensitivity and engagement do not mean acceptance of harmful traditional practices, or a free pass for human rights abuses - far from it. Values and practices that infringe human rights can be found in all cultures. Understanding cultural realities can reveal the most effective ways to challenge these harmful cultural practices and strengthen beneficial ones.
Despite many declarations and affirmations in support of women's rights, the report argues, gender inequality is widespread and deep-rooted in many cultures. Coercive power relations underlie practices such as child marriage-a leading cause of obstetric fistula and maternal death-and female genital mutilation or cutting. These and other harmful practices continue in many countries despite laws against them. Women may even support them, believing that they protect their children and themselves.
The UNFPA approach encourages change from within, says the report. The Fund works with governments and a variety of local organizations and individuals through a "culture lens". "There are people within every culture who oppose harmful cultural practices. Our experience shows that we can work closely with them for cultural change to protect human rights," said Ms. Obaid.
The report emphasises the importance of a culturally sensitive approach not only to development, but also to humanitarian response. It stresses that humanitarian assistance in conflicts must protect whatever progress women have made towards gender equality, including reproductive health and rights. Describing women as victims and men as aggressors ignores cultural realities and the variety of responsibilities that women take in wartime as heads of household, breadwinners, caregivers and combatants.
Culturally sensitive approaches are essential for reaching the Millennium Development Goals, says the report, including Goal 5: to improve maternal health. "To be healthy throughout the life cycle - before pregnancy, during pregnancy and after pregnancy - is a human right," said Ms. Obaid.
The report concludes that analysing people's choices in their local conditions and cultural contexts is a precondition for better development policies.
change, for better or worse, in good times and bad. The report is about
promoting human rights in all circumstances," said Ms. Obaid. "Culture
is not a wall to tear down. It is a window to see through, a door to open
to make greater progress for human rights."
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is an international development agency that promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.