Get Active! Human Rights Education among Young People

When I found out I had been chosen to represent IGG at the human rights workshop in Vienna, I was both over the moon and a little apprehensive. I knew that I had human rights but I didn’t exactly know what they were, or how to advocate for them. The thought of travelling abroad once more representing IGG filled me with pride. This would be my first time in Austria, and I couldn’t wait to explore the city, as well as to educate myself about my rights.

Eve and I met for the first time at our briefing with Lorna in National Office. We had lots of homework to prepare, including choosing a picture which best represented human rights in our country. Eve and I clicked immediately and after the briefing we got straight to work, researching different examples of human rights and activism in Ireland.

Arriving at the airport on Sunday morning, we were filled with excitement and nerves. We said a quick goodbye to our parents and, four hours later, we had arrived in Vienna. We stayed in a lovely youth hostel in the 20th district of Vienna. We had barely started our dinner when we were invited to go and explore the city with some participants. The course hadn’t even begun, and we’d made friends from Austria, Armenia, and Hungary. We spent the evening walking beside the Danube, visiting parks, shops and some monuments.

The course began early Monday morning. We had plenty of energy, but felt a little unsure of what to expect from the course. We spent the morning playing icebreakers, energisers and name games, so we’d get to know each other easily. The afternoon was spent forming a class contract, where we promised to treat everyone with respect and to give 110% in every session. We were briefly introduced to the topic of human rights by brainstorming words linked to what human rights meant to us. It was interesting to hear the differing opinions of people from different countries. That night, we attended an intercultural evening in the Grenzenlos office, the organisation running the event. We represented Ireland with pride, bringing Tayto and whiskey toffee for participants to try. We sang the national anthem and taught everyone some Irish and modern dances and were then showed up when the girl from Russia taught everyone how to Irish dance properly. It was an amazing night sampling food, singing songs, and learning dances from different countries. We did it all from the Macarena to a Traditional Hungarian dance that was so fast we couldn’t keep up to a limbo competition where Eve was crowned Champion.

Tuesday began with a simplified version of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. From here on in, we were told that the course would be a bit more intense and theory-based. I was afraid that we were going to be bombarded with information and that I wouldn’t be able to retain everything. However, there was nothing to worry about, as the trainers ensured that the theory was mixed with fun and creative activities. We designed maps of our perfect cities and then linked the human rights to different buildings in our cities. What became clear was that some human rights are easier to categorise than others and that, no matter how perfect we make our cities, human rights violations can occur everywhere. Each evening, we had reflection groups where we discussed the day we had and suggested what worked well and what didn’t. One group per day would also type up a small blog post for the website.

On Wednesday, we played the ‘Walk in my Shoes’ Game. We were each given a persona relating to the participating countries, and we had to take a step forward if the statements read out applied to us. It was inspiring to hear the thoughts of others on what it’s like to live in Ireland, compared to the truth. After our tea break (the most important time of the day), we were split into smaller groups and were asked to act out the main events in the history of human rights, starting from ancient Egypt onwards. It was fun to act out the different periods in history and made me understand the history better. That afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Vienna to see the sights. Afterwards, we had dinner in a restaurant that employs refugees and ex-convicts to help them begin a new life and it was brilliant getting to know everyone better.

After a late night, Thursday morning was spent doing group meditation. This took me out of my comfort zone but it made me feel more focused for the day ahead. We split into groups and practised theatre of the oppressed. I had never done an activity like this before and was a bit worried that it would be a flop. Each group was given a scenario featuring oppression. My group was given the scenario of immigrants who were allowed within a country’s borders, however had no human rights. It took us a long time to come up with a suitable scene, however, we decided to portray the language barrier, sickness and hostility that immigrants experience in continental countries. I had little to no experience of immigration, however, others in my group had first-hand experience so this allowed the scene to become more realistic. We then acted out our scene in front of the whole group. Any time an audience member felt like an actor was being oppressed, they had to clap and intervene to make the situation better. This proved challenging at first as we had to improvise parts of our scene. Yet having finished this activity, I felt empowered and more confident to stand up for my rights.

Friday was the chance to use what we had learned over the week to design and carry out a workshop of our own. The previous night we had heard from another Grenzenlos trainer about the groups we would be working with. We had a choice of running a workshop in a centre for disadvantaged youth, a kindergarten, in the Grenzenlos office or create a public flash mob. Both Eve and I chose to participate in the public flash mob. We spent Thursday night and Friday morning planning what we would do. We decided on a street performance in the heart of Vienna. We wrote up the articles of the declaration of Human Rights in German and English. We wrote leading questions on our arms and dotted ourselves around the busy places in Vienna, such as the Museums Quarter, the shopping district and People’s Park. One person would hold up an article and the rest of us would spread out and point at that person. We created a human circle each holding up articles in German and English. Some of us stood at either side of busy roads. When the lights were red, we ran across the road and gave each other hugs. We did this to draw attention to the right of equality. The street performance was an incredible experience and it gave me more confidence to run workshops and projects about things I’m passionate about.

Saturday was the last day of the workshop and it was met with great sadness but also fulfilment in all that we’d achieved. We reflected on the week and what we had accomplished. We suggested what could have been done differently and wrote positive messages to each member of the group. That night, we had our farewell party and it marked the end of what was an amazing, empowering and once in a lifetime week.

Sunday was our last day and we got the chance to visit the Crown Jewels and do some shopping in the city. We had entered the week anxious, worried and with jittery nerves. We left feeling empowered, confident, and ready to make a change back home. Not only had I gained a greater knowledge about human rights, but I had done so in an encouraging and non-judgmental environment, where I could be myself. I made some great memories and earned some very intelligent and generous friends from all around the world. As this wasn’t a WAGGS event, it was eye-opening to learn about the various worldwide organisations that have similar aims to that of IGG. Thanks to Lorna, Ruth and Fiona for all their support and for giving us this opportunity, as well as all the trainers at Grenzenlos. For anyone who has thought about applying for international events with IGG, it is the most rewarding opportunity that you can get, and I can’t recommend it enough.