Starting at Home

In the past year, crowds of activists have protested outside government buildings in Ukraine, universities in Venezuela and city squares in Turkey. Thousands, tens of thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands of citizens, make their voices heard through signs, chants and other calls for change.

On Nov. 27, 2013, four high school juniors picketed at the intersection of El Camino Real and Del Mar Heights Road in support of a cause that does not directly affect the San Diego area, but festers across the Atlantic Ocean and in Saudi Arabia. Holding posters that read “Honk for Saudi Women Drivers,” TPHS Amnesty International Youth Group President Nivaasya Ramachandran (11), Vice President Anna Huang (11) and members Sean Uribe (11) and Meera Kota (11) got 352 honks in less than an hour.

Honks may seem like weak opposition to the deplorable status of Saudi women drivers, but Ramachandran’s goal was awareness and public pressure, which she thinks is step one in affecting change in distant circumstances.

Dubbed “grassroots pressure,” the tactic for change used by Amnesty International is essentially indirect lobbying — members seek to inspire enough public outrage to attract the attention of policymakers. This, in fact, might prove as useful as donating money to a cause, which may help with the expense of fighting the good fight but may not affect policy.

“We got over 350 honks in an hour, which shows that people here do care,” Ramachandran said. “Even if we just got two people to Google the issue, we could make a difference.”

Having lived in Malaysia, Korea, China and Belgium, Ramachandran feels like she “owes a kind of patriotism to the whole world rather than one country.”

“[Living in so many countries] helped me see that it doesn’t matter how different you are,” Ramachandran said. “It was so different growing up in Korea; whenever we went to the supermarket, I was the only ‘dark’ kid … it just made me see that it doesn’t matter if you’re different, you can still help each other.”

According to Amnesty International India Country Director Ananthapadmanabhan Guruswamy, “the range of human rights violations cuts across the developing and developed world divide.”

“What is different about the developing world is that institutions like the police and the courts are typically less accountable than in the first world,” Guruswamy said. “Therefore, the difficulty in the developing world is in the implementation of human rights principles and [holding people accountable] when violations occur.”

Ramachandran, who was introduced to Amnesty International by a teacher in Belgium, was so inspired that she decided to start an Amnesty International Youth Group at TPHS.

“I feel like sometimes we underestimate how important it is to bear these things in mind, to talk about it with other people,” Ramachandran said. “That’s what the power of just talking about it can do. Of course raising money and donating is very important, but it is also important to give these people voices they don’t have.”

Kota agrees that the biggest impact students can have with what resources they have is “opening perspectives.”

“I’m very interested in womens’ rights, especially, and there are a lot of issues that TPHS kids aren’t aware of,” Kota said. “Knowing all the problems out there, like trafficking, slavery, and inequality in eduation — it sometimes makes me feel helpless that I can’t do anything directly.”

To Kota, the “honks” — recognitions of a global problem — are stepping stones to change.

“I feel like while we’re sitting in Carmel Valley, it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, bad things are happening in the world,’” Kota said. “It’s a different matter entirely to do something about it, whether that’s actually visiting a country and volunteering, or just trying to educate more people so that more people will care.”

Kota hopes that once people are educated about human rights issues, more will take the initiative to create change, whether by increasing awareness or by helping internationally like she plans to; Kota hopes to volunteer in Indonesia in the future.

“We’re like grass in a field, and if we got every blade of that grass to create a fuss about human rights issues going on in the world, sooner or later the authorities would have to listen and react to our voices,” Ramachandran said.

The “authorities” often have the ability to effect change, but governments do not always have incentives to disturb the status quo. Policies that violate rights may be economically advantageous, or goverment officials may not want to interfere with religious practice, even though it may be discriminatory.

“Sometimes the government colludes in the violations that are perpetrated by big corporations or, at other times, government officials themselves are responsible for the violations, an example being the demolishing of a slum without providing adequate housing alternatives,” Guruswamy said. “Governments have the obligation to actively protect the human rights of every person in their territory. But in practice, [in] some sections of society, some individuals are more powerful, and the rights of the poor and marginalized are violated.”

When government cannot see the social injustice they may be perpetuating, organizations like Amnesty International take matters into their own hands, sometimes with young students and organizations close to home at the forefront.