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TOC Feature: Social work – a human rights framework

By Jolovan Wham

Social workers are concerned with social problems, their causes, their solutions and their impact on society.

We work with individuals, families, groups and organizations, as members of a profession who are committed to the well being of the people. We can be found in a variety of settings: family service centres, different interest groups such as disabled, elderly, youth, children, in schools and in hospitals.

As such, social workers can and should play an important role in engaging the public and the state on human rights issues.

What does taking a human rights perspective mean for social work? The paradox of the profession is that even though human rights are inherent in our mission, few social workers use this phrase in our practice vocabulary.

This is because human rights are often associated with politics, political systems and the ‘lofty’ ideals of freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. While these are legitimate issues that need to be addressed, there is a need to mainstream the concept of human rights among social workers and realise that in our daily dealings with the problems of our clients, a human rights perspective is inextricably linked to how it has implications for our practice.

Some of the issues that are hotly debated now, such as the plight of the mentally ill, repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, ageism, and unemployment, concern the right of the individual and the community to go about their lives without discrimination. While a rights based discourse is sorely lacking in our society in general, this problem has greater resonance for social workers because of our commitment to social justice and the betterment of the lives of the clients that we serve.

Social change: are we missing the big picture?

Human rights has become a mystical concept, and its elusiveness to social workers comes from the fact that social workers do not base their practice on the key UN documents such as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the various UN human rights Conventions.

In fact, many social workers may not even be aware of the fact that Singapore has ratified CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and CRC (Convention of the Rights of the Child) and that the State is obliged to adhere to the principles of these Conventions through legislative measures.

For political reasons, human rights principles based on UN standards are not integrated in the education of social workers. Rather, the education that social workers receive centres mostly on developing micro level direct service skills and counselling methods, with scant attention paid to advocacy strategies, community organising, and critically exploring what advocacy and social action means from a rights based perspective. The de-politicisation of social work has been so successful that discussions of human rights will elicit blank stares from social workers and social work students.

The result of this is that we have become social administrators rather than social advocates— providing counselling, relief and practical help to the disadvantaged—rather than seeing how these approaches can be complemented with social action and advocacy. Problems that clients face are also the result of a society’s cultural norms, values and inherent social inequalities. Challenging these, and effecting change through legislation and other means should be central to social work practice if social workers do not want to end up just fire fighting.

We need to adopt a structural stance to our practice, by taking a more active approach in intervening at a socio-economic level. Social workers have to look at social issues from a wider systemic perspective: we need to take case work and counselling – practice methods which we are good at and trained to deliver – to a level which influences public discourse and social policies. A fuller realisation of social work’s obligation to human rights and social justice will be achieved through a practice that combines micro and macro level approaches.

The polarity that exists between micro and macro level practice, direct services and advocacy, needs to be critically examined. It is important for our practice as social workers to see these approaches as complementary and inter-dependent.

Social workers are in the best position to influence policy makers and create awareness of social issues because our micro level practice gives us an intimate knowledge of what’s happening at the grassroots. We hold a wealth of information through our daily contacts with the person on the street. How do we create strategies to apply this knowledge for social action and social change?

Having a critical perspective on social issues that is independent of the state poses significant challenges for social workers given the fact that the government initiates and delivers many of the social programmes to its citizens. Because many social workers are employed by the state, or depend on funding from relevant state agencies in order to run its programmes, is self censorship inevitable? To what extent is there a conflict of interest if social workers have to represent their clients while being conscious of their position as agents of the state or agents of institutions that have strong links with the state?

For example, how should institutional social workers with government links respond to the rights of women and children and provide an honest critique of the government’s policies if the institution that employs them defends the state’s position on CEDAW and CRC? How should such boundaries and limitations be negotiated? Or are these limitations merely perceived limitations?

My experience

I am a social worker with Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), an NGO that looks into the welfare and interests of migrant workers in Singapore.

In the 3 years that I have been there, we have had the opportunity to engage the government and the media on issues relating to migrant workers. We work with the newspapers to highlight cases of migrant abuse and in the process, raise awareness of their plight. We present evidence from our case work at closed door dialogue sessions with the policy makers at the Ministry of Manpower to show how their laws are affecting the daily experiences of migrant workers. This allows for a very frank exchange of views which can become quite heated and tense at times.

We check on the government’s enforcement actions when cases of abuse are brought before them and provide criticism when we feel that the government officers have handled their cases unsatisfactorily.

The access we have to engage the government and the public would not have happened 20 years ago at the time when 22 activists involved in migrant worker activism as well, were detained by the ISD for an alleged Marxist conspiracy. Singapore’s socio-political climate has opened up more since then, and it is less taboo now to be involved in migrant worker activism. The combined efforts of other local and international groups, coupled with several high profile abuse cases by the local press have also set the stage for more active involvement in migrant worker activism. If the boundaries still exist, then the extent to which they can be pushed is still being tested.

The way forward: beginning a culture of rights discourse

How the State responds also depends a lot on the issue being addressed as some issues are political hot potatoes and others are not, as the recent debate on the Penal Code amendments have shown. Social workers in the various voluntary welfare organisations and family service centres will feel compelled to work within the boundaries that have been drawn by the State.

While many will have little choice but to situate their practice in such a context – how do we develop effective strategies for engagement and collaboration? Such conversations have to begin among social workers because we run into the danger of being locked in a social maintenance paradigm if we do not create strategies and action plans for a rights based discourse that brings social issues to the fore of public discourse. Admittedly, this will not be easy. Nevertheless, if we want to realise our mission to its fullest potential, we should not shy away from it.

About the author: Jolovan is a social worker from H.O.M.E (Humanitarian Organization of Migrant Economics), a local NGO focusing on migrant worker welfare.


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