Everywhere in chains

17th October 1997 at 01:00
GLOBAL ISSUES SERIES. EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN. REFUGEES. CLOSING THE BORDERS. THE RICH-POOR DIVIDE. GENDER ISSUES. RACISM. Wayland Pounds 10.99 each

WHAT dO WE MEAN BY HUMAN RIGHTS SERIES. FREEDOM OF SPEECH. FREEDOM OF BELIEF. RIGHTS IN THE HOME. WORKERS' RIGHTS FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT. Watts Pounds 10. 99 each

Teaching about human rights issues should be at the top of any school's curricular policy, and these two series of hardback books provide welcome resources. They are attractively designed, with clear text, up-to-date pictures illustrating points in a wide variety of geographical contexts, case studies boxed within the text, fact files, glossaries, and addresses for further information and involvement.

Perhaps inevitably, they make sobering reading, especially when taken at one go. Particularly depressing is Exploitation of Children, which details the conditions suffered by children on building sites in Thailand and India, and the virtual slavery of bonded labour throughout southern Asia. Even our own humble paper round can expect children to carry weights more than double the legal maximum for an adult.

The problems of refugees come up frequently. Refugees and Closing the Borders use plenty of real examples to illustrate the problems that force people to flee their homes, and highlight the cold or hostile treatment they often meet in their country of refuge. The two books have a considerable overlap. For example, they both deal with the effects of the "Fortress Europe" policy brought about by the Schengen Agreement, and they might have worked better merged into one.

The same is partly true of the Franklin Watts series, where there is often overlap between titles, and the relationship between some of the examples to the theme of the book is sometimes unclear.

Freedom of Speech takes its brief widely, from the Islamic censorship of Taslima Nasreen's book Shame (and a curiously brief mention of the Salman Rushdie affair) to Bismarck's doctoring of the Ems telegram, which sparked off the Franco-Prussian War - an issue of concern but not really about freedom of speech. Freedom of Belief begins with Ken Saro-Wiwa, who might have featured more appropriately under Freedom of Speech, and goes on to cover issues such as euthanasia and abortion, which certainly do raise issues of freedom, but not necessarily of belief.

By contrast, religious beliefs are dealt with in secular terms, such as the political-religious divisions in Northern Ireland, or the rights of Sikhs to wear turbans (not seriously in dispute in the United Kingdom since the 1970s crash helmets issue, surely?). On the other hand some material one might have expected to find is not there. What about the right to carry religious daggers? Or full-scale religious persecution in the Soviet Union or China? This was one occasion when I was expecting the Spanish Inquisition - and did not get it.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the most successful volumes are those that focus more directly on a specific issue. Workers' Rights, from Watts, and Gender Issues, from Wayland, are particularly successful here, presenting what is sometimes deeply disturbing material sensitively and dispassionately. Many readers will think twice before buying cuddly toys after reading accounts of the dangerous conditions in which they are produced in Thailand and China.

Gender Issues opens the reader's eyes to issues such as arranged marriages in the Hindu tradition and the hidden agenda that lies behind the allocation of jobs in your local supermarket.

Rights in the Home concentrates on divorce, battered wives, and the abuse of the residents of old people's homes. Racism is particularly depressing, covering not just outbreaks of racist violence, but the culture of corruption and intimidation that can go with it.

But it also contains the most amusing story in this collection. An Afrikaaner, unable to shake off his old habits in the new South Africa, hassled a black man for double-parking outside a chip shop, insulted him, grabbed him by the throat and carted him off to the police station - only to find he had arrested the new Minister of Police.

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