The world observes Human Rights Day on December 10. For this year, the theme of the occasion has been set as: "Equality, reducing inequalities, advancing human rights".
This theme relates directly to Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the heart of human rights.
This includes addressing and finding solutions for deep-rooted forms of discrimination that have affected the most vulnerable people in societies, including women and girls, indigenous peoples, migrants and people with disabilities, among others.
As a nation, we have acted significantly at a policy level to uphold equality of dignity and rights of persons with mental health and neurodevelopmental disabilities.
This includes the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007, the enactment of the Rights and Protection of the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2013 and the enactment of the Mental Health Act in 2018.
We have a long way to go in terms of implementation of strategies in the prevention of mental health issues, however. It requires complex collaboration between the public and the private health sectors to strengthen information systems for research. Community-based social care services are also crucial for sustaining mental wellbeing.
At an individual level, we all carry within ourselves the capacity to make a difference. In some previous articles, templates for the identification and prevention of stress and depression have been outlined for the layperson to intervene and help others.
Today, we will talk about discrimination; how our behaviour (verbal and non-verbal) can, unbeknownst to us, become the source for discrimination towards marginalised groups of people.
We may be familiar with the term "microaggression". But what is it and how does it impact us? A microaggression is a form of discrimination and can be intentional or accidental. There are three types of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations.
- Microassaults: A microassault is when a person intentionally behaves in a discriminatory way while not intending to be offensive. An example of a microassault is a person telling a sexist joke then saying, "Do not be so sensitive.".
- Microinsults: A microinsult is a comment or action that is unintentionally discriminatory. For example, this could be an American person asking a Bangladeshi person, "How do you speak English so well?".
- Microinvalidations: A microinvalidation is when a person's comment invalidates or undermines the experiences of a certain group of people. An example of a microinvalidation would be a white person telling a person of color that "Racism does not exist in today's society.".
It is important to raise our awareness regarding these acts of discrimination because they cause considerable distress among the targeted groups.
People may be targeted with microaggressions because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, disability, mental health, weight, or age.
Researchers studying the effects of "racial" microaggressions on American college students found that they were especially harmful in work and educational settings. For instance, persons regularly experiencing them had lower self-esteem.
This is a significant finding since self-esteem is a major protective factor against suicide risk behaviours. In another study, researchers found that people who experienced "ethnic" microaggressions had higher levels of depression and trauma.
We can further supplement our awareness and skills to counter microaggressive behaviours by developing "cultural competence". We can increase our knowledge on the marginalised communities that exist within Bangladesh and worldwide.
The most common groups that are inadvertently targeted by our lack of awareness are the various indigenous people of Bangladesh such as the Chakma, Marma, Tripuri, Garo, Santals etc. They are often misrepresented and misidentified as a result of our cultural ignorance.
Developing cultural competence in this regard entails asking questions, rather than assuming if someone is a member of a particular ethnic group or religion, or even speak a specific language. It also warrants that we not pay heed to socio-cultural stereotypes against any ethnic minority groups.
A quick way to determine which areas require further study and awareness is to look at the memberships we assume within our greater society.
If we can be categorised as members of the majority/enfranchised social group, then we can take some time to inform ourselves about the minority/disenfranchised groups of which we are not a part.
So, if we were to identify as an able-bodied, male, heterosexual, Muslim, then we could read or watch informational sources on the types and experiences of persons with disabilities and religious and ethnic minorities of Bangladesh.
Gathering accurate knowledge not only prevents us from engaging in microaggressions, but it also equips us with the skills to intervene when someone else lacks competence, and it fosters overall social empathy.
For instance, we are far more likely to notice that a workplace, commercial building, or school is not disability-friendly if we keep ourselves informed about the many challenges a wheelchair user or a person with neurodevelopmental disability faces.
Similarly, a workplace will be more understanding of an employee experiencing an emotional crisis if they uphold mental health assistance policies.
Yes, a large burden for this knowledge and information dissemination falls directly on the leadership and governance roles within the health sector of our country, but we cannot solely rely on them to update us.
Schools and universities can be a great place for the youth to receive such knowledge about human rights and to stress the importance of our behaviours in undoing the negative behavioural patterns of our ancestors. The onus lies in each of us to act when we notice even the slightest mark of discrimination.
So, on this day, this year, let us take a vow to update our knowledge on one marginalised group every few months at a time and actively correct our peers, when we see them perpetuate misguided behaviours.
Nissim Jan Sajid is the Lead Psychological Counselor & Additional Managing Director at the Psychological Health & Wellness Clinic (PHWC).
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.