Social work and human rights

The links between social work and human rights are explicit. Social workers are human rights workers. A human approach to social work education provides the students a framework for their advocacy, direct service and community development efforts. A human rights perspective gives social work practitioners the ability to transform knowledge into empathy, and empathy into action.


Knowledge Empathy Action


1. Knowledge – also referred to as Human Rights Literacy. This means knowledge of the philosophical foundations and principles of the human rights field. It means familiarity with the documents girding the human rights field. One such document worth looking into and studying is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). There are succeeding nine core international human rights treaties.


These include the following :


ICERD – International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination – Dec. 1965.

ICCPR – International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Dec. 1966.

ICESCR – International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – Dec. 1966.

CEDAW – Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – Dec. 1979.

CAT – Convention against Torture and Other Cruel , Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – Dec. 1984.

CRC – Convention on the Rights of the Child – Nov. 1989.

ICRMW – International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families – 1990.

CRPD – Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability – Dec. 2006.

CPED – International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance – Dec. 2006.


2. Human Rights Empathy. Knowledge alone is not enough to give life to the social work profession. One needs to develop empathy. Empathy has been defined as the ability to relate to other persons. It is the ability “to put oneself into the experience of other people.” It is plain concern for the other person. Empathy is what will motivate the social work professional to take action. It is the bridge between knowledge and action.


Empathy can be taught. A wealth of reading materials can provide insights on the principles of empathy. At the same time, reading and watching movies on real-life situations can help the student develop empathy. But the most important strategy is immersion, that is, immersing the student in environments and situations where she gets first hand experience.


3. Human Rights Responsibility. It is taking responsibility for the clients. It is determining what action could be taken and taking such action. It is transforming knowledge into something tangible and concrete.


Discussions on the case of Baby George can expand knowledge on the issues of child abuse, discrimination, poverty, and supplementing this with real-life experiences from resource persons can inspire empathy. However, this should not stop here, the questions are: How can the infant and the mother be helped? What could be the long-term solution so that both mother and child can lead a normal life? In this case, intervention is not limited to the infant and the mother, but will also involve the husband, the family and the entire community.


In taking action, the social work professional should feel that doing so can make a difference in a person’s life, or in the life of a family, or of a community. Only by transforming knowledge into action, can social work professionals be called change agents.




The last 50 years have seen unprecedented and rapid developments in the field of technology resulting in greater improvements on how people live their lives and respond to forces in their environment.


While these developments have given rise to supposed better quality of life, they have also widened the gap among diverse groups of people.


While supermarket shelves are bursting with fresh produce and grocery items and dinner tables at restaurants are laden with all sorts of foods, we see men, women, and children, whole families scavenging for food in the sidewalks of urbanized Makati City.


While women (and some men, too) crowd into salons to have their hair rebonded, their skin scrubbed and whitened, their bodies massaged, and their wrinkles botoxed, we have people in Tawi-Tawi who are going to die without having seen a doctor in their entire lives.


While our students are taking notes in class on their laptops and changing their cellphones as frequently as their clothes, we have close to 12 million out-of-school youth (as of 2009) , young people who are supposed to be in school, but are forced out because of poverty, armed conflict, or ill health.


While OFW remittances reached P17.5 B last year, registering a 5.6% growth, cushioning the impact of world-wide recession, cases of broken homes are increasing, and the number of overseas workers coming home maimed in body and mind has not diminished.


The task appears daunting. But to people in the social work profession, responding to these challenges is part of their lives.


The 2010 Joint World Conference in Hong Kong, which was organized by the International Schools of Social Work (IASSW), International Council on Social Work (ICSW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), drafted the Global Agenda on Social Work and Social Development. Included in the draft are the major areas that can serve as a framework for development and implementation. There are four areas:


a. Social and economic inequalities within countries and between regions. There is the worsening marginalization of the poor and the increased vulnerability of poor people in countries where there is no social protection.


A survey on the 10 poorest provinces in the country revealed that in Tawi-Tawi, the average daily income is barely P100.


b. Dignity and worth of the person. People are entitled to have the basics for quality of life. Children should not be exposed to armed conflicts, but we have more than a million children living in such conditions.


c. Environmental sustainability. Major natural disasters continue to batter the country. It seems that nobody is spared as attested by Typhoon Ondoy.


d. Importance of human relationships.


Working abroad should be an option, and not a necessity.


The practice of social work is a noble profession. It gives the social work professional the opportunity to help give people their basic needs, to help them fit better into their environment and at the same time change the environment to make it more conducive to quality life. But more than all this, the social work profession is a giving and caring profession, enriching the lives not only of its clients, but even more so of its practitioners.



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