For decades Canadian Firdaus Kharas has been mass-communicating messages of intractable human rights; he’s seen unimaginable results of violations. Yet there’s one example that is still so fresh, it haunts him.
It involved a very young boy in Bangladesh who had acid poured down his throat. It happened because one family member owed money to another, and in some parts of the country, acid attacks were how the local culture dealt with unpaid debts. The result was sickening, an inhuman action carried out because of an insane justification.
“The idea that ‘we do this because because it is part of our culture’ makes no sense to me. No one has the right to attack a child with acid, no one,” Kharas insists a few years after meeting the boy.
In 2011 he took the idea a stage further, creating a series of 11 animated public service announcements (PSA) that mocked, with humour, some of the cultural justifications people use for violence against women and children. He called the spots, unsurprisingly, No Excuses and they coincided with the growing notoriety of high-profile cases of abuse around the world. A short documentary about acid attacks in Pakistan – Saving Face – won an Academy Award in 2012.
Unlike his two previous PSA series targeting the prevention of HIV/AIDS and malaria, content on domestic violence is a politically charged subject, prone to stepping over cultural boundaries of accepted and unquestioned behaviour. The international community, including the United Nations General Assembly, has always treated these boundaries delicately. Kharas, who splits his time between Ottawa and Geneva, made sure not to identify specific cultures or ethnic types during production of No Excuses.
With his previous PSA series, Three Amigos and Buzz & Bite, he personally distributed thousands of broadcast-quality versions in dozens of languages to hundreds of countries. All three series have been done completely by volunteers.
Perhaps because of its political volatility, no broadcast versions of No Excuses were sent out. Instead the spots were made available online on his Website and on Youtube. They’ve been viewed thousands of times. Here’s an example:
Old man and young man watching children play.
OM – “They’re far too happy.”
YM – “They’re children, father.”
OM – “Then beat them. It’s for they’re own good. My father beat me. I beat you. It’s your duty.”
Take out the twisted social logic, and this is where the United Nations finally arrived March 15 when the office of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced that the organization no longer accepted any cultural justification – including custom, tradition or religion – for violence against women and children.
The resolution was accepted by 131 U.N. members and even included provisions for sex education and contraceptives, although the declaration is non-binding. This means any member can fudge its actions for various reasons, which is already happening in places like Egypt, Russia and the Vatican because governments there are having second thoughts on how the wording relates to homosexuality, rape within marriage and abortion.
The assumption is that some countries believe rape within marriage is acceptable while sexual orientation and a woman’s right to abortion are not. While a progressive attitude about the rights of women and children has long been publicly presented by the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women, it’s taken 57 years since the commission’s inception to get all U.N. member states, at least publicly, on board.
At the conclusion of the commission’s 57th session, executive director Michelle Bachelet exclaimed that the world was tired of how violence against women and children impedes the goals of civil societies: “enough is enough.” Yet concerns about effectiveness remain, and are well spelt out by University of London professor in human geography Dr. Katherine Brickell.
For Kharas as well, the U.N. declaration was not a “moment of victory.” He was pleased to see his own attack on cultural justifications for abuse becoming accepted at the world’s highest levels. Yet so much works remains to be done.
“Until all cultures truly understand that violence to women is not only anti-human but also one of the worst socio-economic choices anyone can make, there will continue to be problems,” he says. “To finally have (the U.N.) sweep away cultural and religious justifications is, I feel, a huge step toward international human rights.”