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Racial discrimination

Fellow: “Colourism” is a hidden human rights challenge

05 February 2020

Woman speaking into a microphone

jFor Stephanie Sewell, being a human rights defender is synonymous with her mission to combat colourism: discrimination based on skin tone within African descent communities.


“It’s a further level of racism within a race” said Sewell. “Based on shades of your skin, in some spaces, you’re perceived as either being prettier or of a higher social class. And it is usually the lighter ones who are perceived to be of a higher class than those who are darker skinned.”

Sewell is a 2019 UN Human Rights African Descent Fellow. The programme aims to strengthen the skills of participants to contribute to the protection and promotion of human rights of people of African descent and their respective countries. Fellows learn about the different human rights mechanisms, and how to use them to enhance development of legislation, strengthen collaboration of civil societies with governments and to undertake local awareness raising activities.

Colourism might seem an unusual subject to be associated with human rights, but Sewell said that prejudice against darker skin tones has led to human rights challenges. Sewell recently launched a campaign in Jamaica to raise awareness of colourism and other human rights issues. The campaign, called @DarkSkinInJA, uses social media to highlight the double standard and discrimination that happens to people with darker skin colour in Jamaica.

For example, the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association (JMDA) lists colour prejudice as one of the human rights concerns its members have noted in interactions between patients and medical staff. In a booklet issued in June 2019 called “Health Care The “Rights” Way: Centering Human Rights in Patients’ Care”, the association noted that patients with lighter complexions are treated more favourably than those with darker hues when seeing medical attention at public hospitals and clinics.

In addition, the prejudice encourages harmful practices such as skin bleaching, which 11 percent of the country’s population undertake, according to a 2017 government survey on lifestyle. It extends to education, where dress codes often are aimed at reducing the more natural characteristics of those who are darker skinned, Sewell said. She pointed to a recent case of a primary school where a child with a dreadlock hairstyle was refused entrance because of grooming rules.

“I think it’s just disappointing, to think that in Jamaica, the home, the birth place of Rastafarianism. . . home of Marcus Garvey who preached about black pride,… that the schools still try to enforce the same colonial standards of beauty,” she said.

The fellowship will give Sewell a chance to increase the reach of her human rights campaign in Jamaica and to embrace her growing role as a human rights defender.

“The fellowship gives me much more exposure to what the UN mechanisms are. . . increase human rights awareness in Jamaica and just generally get the message out there better,” she said.  “I think for a very long time, human rights has been deemed to be issues that the Western world had been pushing and not so much in the Caribbean. But when you start to look at the nitty gritty, the fact that education is a right, health is a right, you realize you can’t help but (see the need to promote and protect human rights and therefore) be a human rights defender. At its core, it’s something I do believe in.”

This year marks the half-way point in the observance of the Decade for People of African Descent. Learn how more about the Decade and the events.

Woman speaking into a microphone