Marjorie Lazaro on human rights

Photo of Marjorie LazaroTell us something about yourself.

I was brought up in the country, graduated from London University, lived briefly in France and worked in Spain, and then returned to London. I have been a schoolteacher and instructor in computer studies, and have worked for the Fawcett Society. I am a Quaker.

When was the first time you became aware of human rights?

After university I connected up with the Friends International Centre and became aware of the post-war chaos, the story of the Transportkinder and so on. I met many 'new colonials' and in helping them to find accommodation learned first hand of the racism they encountered. In a steep learning curve I came to appreciate the lessons of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I probably never heard the phrase 'human rights' until feminism became part of my life and I learned (at the Fawcett Society, among others) about the position of women in non-Western societies. I discovered that finding a voice is an effort for women, especially in the context of marriage. Marriage is a silencing mechanism - often deeply concealed. This is also true in extra-marital relationships. Women are still subordinate - inequality is legitimised.

What do human rights mean to you in your own life?

An ideal to be worked towards. Unions can help solve problems, but many workers will not join a union. Unions can help educate people about their (human) rights. As a teacher I learned that our right to unionise gave us some control over our working conditions: the right to strike - the ultimate sanction - stems from human rights.

Personally, I constantly become aware of new 'rights' in medical care. Has everyone a right to the latest medical technology? To fertility treatment? To plastic surgery?

I question the absoluteness of freedom of speech and religion - how does the law protect these? I see that human rights may also cause conflict; indeed, one person's right may infringe on another's. For example, where economic resources are not infinite, should the rights of new immigrants be subordinated to those of established communities?

What do you think is the public perception of human rights in the UK?

I think there is confusion about children's rights - people think that children should be properly treated, but there is considerable disagreement as to what this entails. Parental rights are seen as paramount.

Human rights are viewed as something that other (foreign) people need, but that in a democracy are largely irrelevant. There is often incomprehension regarding the rights, for example, of prisoners or the disabled. Don't the disabled have rights? Why should prisoners have rights - have they forfeited them by criminal activity? These are often-asked questions indicating ignorance of the concept of equality of rights.

What more can be done to encourage people in the UK to think and feel positively about human rights?

  • Reform the press!
  • Educate on human rights in specific contexts such as prisons, medicine, the home, schools. Open up areas such as domestic violence and discrimination for discussion.
  • Hold 'awareness days' on the model of International Women's Day.
  • A human rights logo and badge

Name your human rights hero/heroine.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) came from a well-to-do Quaker family in Norwich. After visiting London's notorious Newgate prison in 1813, the banker's daughter became not just the UK's most important woman penal reformer, but Europe's chief campaigner for inmates' rights.