Human Rights Biographies

The human rights biographies project was designed to encourage participants to explore their own personal experiences of human rights issues in their own lives to date; the focus is directly on the participants and seeks to highlight human rights as personal ‘lived and experienced’ realities rather than as international instruments and procedures.

Organised as part of the 2014 Human Rights Summer School Summer School by the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies (Malta) and 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World (Ireland), our objective is to challenge the idea that human rights are a ‘western’ or ‘external’ set of ideas created by bodies such as the UN and to stimulate discussion and debate about the personal relevance of human rights to each and every one of us. The activity is also designed to introduce the participants to each other and to explore a common theme prior to involving ‘outsiders’ (lecturers, guests etc.).

3 Big Ideas

  • Human rights arise directly from our experience of daily life
  • Human rights issues affect us all at individual, family, community, national and international levels
  • Human rights have universal importance regardless of culture and history


The Summer School brings together civil society representatives, students and diplomats to discuss and debate key issues and themes in human rights; the 2014 theme focused on Faith, Belief and Human Rights. Participants included individuals from Egypt, Jordan, Kosovo, Tunisia, Morocco, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The specific activity highlighted here is undertaken on Day 1 and requires a full day for adequate completion and processing (approximately 6 hours).


Large sheets of poster paper; pens, masking tape, paint or coloured markers/crayons etc. Lots of floor space.


The process has 6 specific phases:

  1. Participants identify 3 specific events or experiences in their own lives (not those of ‘others’) that related to human rights issues positively or negatively. They need to be prepared to share these across the group.
  2. Each participant shares their choices with another participant and then these are shared in a roundtable across the entire group. The facilitator uses a flip chart to identify and group common themes/experiences from the stories presented – commonly they are about family (and often the role of ‘Dads’ or brothers); school, the police/courts/judicial system, work, promotion, sexism etc. This aspect usually promotes an extended discussion as participants add other similar experiences to those described.
  3. Each participant is then provided with a large poster sheet and invited to divide it into two-thirds and one third with a dividing line drawn on. They then draw or symbolise the experiences they have chosen – most cannot draw, so we encourage the use of symbols (a blackboard, school building, gender symbols, key words etc.) – the idea is to encourage participants to ‘symbolise’ their experiences and to capture something of its essence. These are again shared in pairs and discussed.
  4. Each person then draws a direct line from the drawing to the bottom third of the poster and then ‘names’ the human rights issue e.g. discrimination, gender inequality, the rights of the child, freedom of belief etc. This list can then generate a full group discussion for which adequate time is vital if the process is to have the desired impact.
  5. Each pair then joins the posters together and uses a coloured pen or paint or tape to draw out the links in the stories chosen. Each pair then shares their ‘map’ with another pair and then this process is repeated in fours etc. until a full group map is completed usually on the floor with a series of images, stories, symbols, links and key words.
  6. The process is then completed with a group discussion to draw out the themes of the activity, their relevance to human rights and to peoples’ daily lives worldwide regardless of location or culture etc. This then creates a common basis for the remainder of the school/conference/workshop etc. And, most importantly of all, it roots the discussion of rights in the participants own lives.

The stories chosen in the 2014 summer school related, inter-alia to segregated education, discriminatory attitudes to sons and daughters in families, the use of ‘mockery’ as a tool for prejudice, gender based workplace discrimination, unlawful imprisonment.

Project Learning

The main learning included:

  • Participants don’t routinely consider their chosen life experiences in the context of human rights and usually find it illuminating and challenging to do so
  • It is vital to ensure that everyone has adequate time to tell their ‘story’ and to be asked questions on it
  • Sometimes the stories can be very difficult (in our experience related to family issues, the use of violence and even torture, intense anger over gender issues etc.). This requires careful handling and group care – something which normally occurs – in over a decade we have had very, very few discussions that became potentially damaging and required intervention). In this context group ‘rules’ are vital.
  • The activity has been very effective in personal terms and the fact that the summer school focuses entirely on the participants for a first full day (as distinct from lectures or inputs) is routinely commented upon positively in our evaluation annually. It also builds considerable trust within the group.
  • It also clearly demonstrates the universal nature of human rights and builds a positive platform for subsequent discussions and debates on the more ‘formal’ dimensions of human rights.

Measuring Your Impact

Although it remains difficult to measure the impact of art in human rights, this activity is evaluated in three specific ways:

  1. One, it is evaluated as the project proceeds, through discussion in the whole group around the specific stories that emerge, the symbols that are chosen and the whole group ‘questioning’ of the stories.
  2. At the end of the process itself, the activity is evaluated in terms of the learning achieved and in terms of how the process can be used.
  3. Finally, the process is evaluated at the conclusion of the school itself and is consistently highlighted as one of the best parts of the School by participants. In subsequent parts of the summer school, we make use of drama and the stories that emerged on Day 1 frequently arise again in this process illustrating its overall value.

In follow up feedback by participants, this activity is mentioned as having been re-used, especially in the context of youthwork in Turkey and the Balkans and has also been used in workshops organised by the Euro Mediterranean Human Rights Network.