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It is time to focus on the rights at the heart of social work

Posted on 9/12/2016 by

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International Human Rights Day enables social workers to consider a broader framework of rights that recognises the contexts in which we live

The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is often seen as a watershed moment, when many governments came together and said: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

For many social workers across the world, the declaration also represents a significant moment in global social development. However, as we approach its 70th anniversary, it is important to recognise that not all social workers agree and many believe it is not comprehensive enough to contribute to sustainable wellbeing. 

Social workers practise in the context of competing rights everywhere. We work with families, communities and places of employment where the rights of one group or one person may be at odds with those of another. The rights of the child, of culture, of individual expression, of self-determination – all these create a maze through which the social worker must skilfully navigate.

The UN declaration doesn’t give voice to the concept of competing rights and the processes needed to bring people together to find consensus. Indeed, it developed from a top-down perspective, where governments gave rights to the individuals over whom they governed. This is why the declaration focuses mostly on civil and political rights, such as the rights to vote, to a fair trial, freedom of speech and so on.

As a global profession that seeks to transform social systems to end oppression, marginalisation and disadvantage, it is time for social work to develop a more inclusive and holistic framework of rights, based on the profession’s principles of social justice, dignity, diversity and sustainability.

This social work rights framework must focus on the four key international themes developed at the 2010 Joint World Conference on Social Work, when 3,000 practitioners from across the globe gathered to set an agenda to guide the future of the profession.

This relates to the individual’s right be understood as a unique person with strengths and capabilities. As a profession that focuses on the whole person, social workers have taken action on this right. For example, in the Netherlands social workers have redesigned social services to enable a more holistic approach to wellbeing. This includes rebuilding social structures to address issues such as depression and isolation, and creating health and wellbeing plans not just for the individual, but for the whole community.

The right to dignity also includes the right to self-determination – the ability to influence one’s own life. Research consistently shows that when people are able to make decisions over their own lives they are happier, healthier and live longer.

Social and economic rights

Some of the most profound developments in human rights arose from mass participation in democratic structures and non-violent protest. The civil rights movement, disability networks, trade unions and women’s movements have (along with others) transformed the conditions of how people live and have made societies more inclusive and balanced.

Social work identifies the right of people to shape their environment. For example, African social workers and the communities they work with argue that “aid” is degrading and not a sustainable approach to fighting poverty. They say transforming the global tax system to ensure that multinationals and offshore governments pay their taxes in Africa rather than putting it in tax havens would raise more money than all of the aid that Africa currently receives. A simple demand, where people want their economic and social rights based on fair systems in global practice.

Social workers have been consistent advocates for the active involvement of individuals in shaping their future wellbeing.

The International Federation of Social Workers recently formally recognised the importance of the rights of nature and identified the role of social workers in creating sustainable communities and environments. In many parts of Latin America and Asia-Pacific, social workers have advocated that land, water and air be given rights as if they were people, so they will not be exploited, but instead be able to thrive for generations to come. Such an approach is essential in the context of the planet’s limited and fragile resources, and the increasing over-exploitation of nature, which will directly affect the symbiotic relationship between the billions of people and earth.

Relationship rights

Social work aims to preserve and enhance social relationships, because we understand intrinsically that the interdependence of people is a core requirement for achieving quality of life.

Social workers understand that a person’s family plays the most fundamental role in their future wellbeing and, as such, we recognise that people have a right to secure relationships in their families and communities.

Sadly, however, in the social legislation of some countries, rights only focus on the child, while the family and community are not usually considered. This, all too often, results in children being removed from their birth parents, rather than the more humane and economically-viable approach of providing the original family with the support, resources and education needed to secure the rights of the family relationships. We must continue to challenge such practices.

Human rights will always be at the core of social work. There is no question that practitioners will continue to protect and promote people’s fundamental rights. The four key areas mentioned above, while not yet a professional tool or guideline, highlight a broader framework that social workers encounter in their work between family, community and group members.

This understanding of rights spans beyond the UN declaration and takes into account the differing perceptions of rights as they relate not just to individuals but also to the social, relational and environment contexts in which we live. It is time to open the discussion both within and outside the profession and work towards a more comprehensive social work framework of rights. 



Source: Community Care