11. Human rights and civil society


The purpose of this module is to help students make the connection between the rights and the development of a free civil society, to know the importance of organized civil society for democratic processes, and to have an informed relationship with the state and society, knowing and defending their rights.

The purpose of this module is to help students make the connection between the rights and the development of a free civil society, to know the importance of organised civil society for democratic processes, and to have an informed relationship with the state and society, knowing and defending their rights.


Short description of the session

 This session aims at getting children and young people to understand what civil society is and to see their own role in it. In the introductory exercise the participants get ‘new identities’ and learn about how the civil society differs from other societal spheres. They will understand that ordinary people like themselves, by joining groups and being members of non-governmental organisations, can increase their influence in society. The subsequent group work will make the pupils aware that human rights like freedom of speech, as well as freedom of movement and freedom of assembly, are tools we must use for gaining power. No change comes from silence. During a visit to the museums’ exhibitions, the pupils will be ‘detectives’ looking for persons who have made a positive impact. In their investigations, they will also identify the human rights these persons have used in order to create change. Vibrant civil societies create and uphold free democracies where human rights are respected.


Learning goals

  • Make the pupils understand what civil society is and why it is so important
  • Make them aware that human rights ensure our freedom to participate and influence
  • Motivate the pupils for societal engagement and active citizenship



  • Time: 1–3 hours (depending on how in-depth the teacher wants to go)
  • Requirements: A large room with ample space for physical activity
  • Preparations: The teacher must prepare one post-it note with a new identity for each participant, and a short lecture about civil society.


Activity: Civil Society

 This is an exciting and funny activity that starts on the floor.

  1. The teacher invites the pupils to form a circle on the floor. They must have their heads turned to the teacher who stands in the middle and close their eyes. The teacher informs that all of them, one after another, will feel a soft touch on their upper body. He/she then places post-it notes with a new identity on each person. The selection of identities given to the pupils should be random. In some circumstances, however, some pupils might feel certain identities as problematic. The teacher should try to avoid this.
  2. The pupils, still with their eyes closed, are told that they have gotten new identities. The task when they open their eyes, is to gather in groups according to their new identities. With whom of the others do they fell they belong and have something in common? (5–10 minutes).
  3. Usually, four groups are established:
  • Identities with POLITICAL POWER (political and state power apparatus)
  •  Identities with ECONOMIC POWER (business and profit-makers)
  • Identities with RELIGIOUS POWER (leaders of different faiths)
  • Identities WITHOUT POWER (persons that have neither political, economic or religious powers)

NB: Sometimes additional groups are formed.

  1. The teacher asks first some of the pupils in Group 1 (political power) to explain why they ended up in this group. What were their reflections? During the conversation, the teacher directs the attention to the fact that persons in this group represent political and governmental power. (The police and military, for example, are the only actors in a society that have legitimate rights to use physical force.)
  2. The teacher asks the participants in Group 2 to explain why they ended up in this group. During the conversation, the teacher underlines that these persons produce goods and services and/or control the financial system. They have economic power.
  3. The teacher asks the persons in Group 3 to explain. These persons have ‘religious or spiritual’ power. (In some countries these are very powerful, whilst in others they are not very influential).
  4. Finally, the teacher asks the participants in Group 4 to explain their positions. During the conversation, the teacher must address the fact that this group basically does not have any political, economic or religious power. They are just ordinary people. Many of them, unlike the powerful actors, represent vulnerable groups who often need assistance and help from the community at large. Put together, these individuals and groups are what is often labelled ‘civil society’.
  5. If additional groups are formed, the teacher should ask the pupils to explain their positions. However, since the purpose of the activity is to raise awareness about the power bases of the four mentioned groups, the teacher, in a nice way, may guide them to the ‘right’ group.
  6. Everyone returns to their chairs for summing up.



The teacher draws a circle on the blackboard (see illustration) and concludes that there are many ways to look upon and analyse a society. One way is to understand it according to different power spheres. Then it is easier to see that ordinary people, unlike other actors, generally do not possess political or economic power.

Now the pupils are to answer the following question: What can individuals do to strengthen their influence in society?

One main conclusion is that individuals can form groups and establish organisations. When many people go together, their voice gets stronger. Organisations that are created by engaged individuals are often called non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

  • Give examples of civil society organisations in Bulgaria
  • What are the aims of the different organisations?
  • How are the different organisations financed?
  • Some organisations do not want to receive any financial support from the state and/or the business sector. Why?
  • As individuals, should we become members of organisations and support them?
  • Why is civil society important to a state?
  • Give examples of civil society organisations that are international or have international networks
  • Why do we need a global civil society?


  • Parliamentarian
  • Prime minister
  • Minister
  • Judge
  • General
  • Police officer
  • Military captain
  • Business magnate
  • Owner of a factory
  • Capitalist
  • Hotel owner
  • Shareholders
  • Rich farmer
  • Priest
  • Imam
  • Child
  • Woman
  • Pensioner
  • Homosexual
  • Refugee
  • Prostitute
  • Disabled
  • Old woman
  • Beggar
  • Blind

NB: if there are more pupils, some can get the same identity (police officer, woman, capitalist, etc.)

Follow-up group work: Active citizenship and human rights

  1. The teacher asks the following questions: In what ways can individuals participate in and influence society? The answers should be written on the board. If the teacher believes that important channels of influence are missing, he/she should add them.
  2. The pupils are now to work in groups. The task is to identify articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that protect people’s rights to influence and have a say in society (Articles 19, 20, 21 and 27 are particularly relevant).
  3. The pupils gather in the plenary and discuss their findings.

Follow-up work. Studying the work and purpose of NGOs.

Many NGOs have very interesting backgrounds because they are established to find solutions to problems in society. The pupils can dig into different NGOs. What was the problem the NGO wanted to address? Does the NGO have members? What are the tools the NGO uses in their work? Does the NGO cooperate with the authorities? Why? Why not?

Questions for reflection

  • Why is it important that people state their opinions about challenges and problems in society and how it is governed?
  • Are community-based decisions better than those made by one person only or a small group? Why?
  • Do some groups have less opportunities in terms of participation and influence (young people, disabled, different minorities, refugees and others)?What can we do to correct this? Why is it more challenging for young people to have a say in society than adults?


A society consists of people with different opinions, experiences, ages, resources, religions, beliefs, interests, genders, etc. To form inclusive and good societies to live in, all of us – the young as well as the old – should use our human rights and express our opinions.

The importance of Civil Society (for the teacher)

Civil Society is a term that is often used when talking about democracy and human rights. It encompasses the many stakeholders in a society that are outside the governmental power structures.

Some of the most important are the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). There are thousands of national and international human rights organisations all over the world, and many of them work to improve the situation for vulnerable groups such as refugees, children, persons with special needs, sexual minorities, elderly, and others.

Free and independent media is also among the most valuable institutions in democratic societies to promote human rights. It is only through TV, radio, newspapers, and the internet that people can become aware of human rights violations. Such information is a prerequisite for people to organise and do something about the problems that arise.

Last but not least, it must be underlined that we all, as individuals, families and friends, can contribute in different ways to improve the human rights situation in our own societies. It is essential that we all respect other people’s rights. Nobody should be discriminated. We can also become members of NGOs, participate in campaigns and demonstrations, or write articles in the media regarding how we feel about our human rights’ situation. On a daily basis, it is important to discuss with friends and family, listen to others, and vocalise our opinions. We all influence each other!

Human rights are important when it comes to both claiming our own rights and protecting the rights of others. They are not given to us once and for all – they must be protected and fought for every day.

How to use the museums

Many museums can be visited in order to increase the pupils’ knowledge about civil society and the human rights which protect our right to participation.

The pupils can work in groups or individually with different tasks. They can work on a topic for shorter or longer periods. They can write essays or prepare presentations for the others in the classroom and open up for questions and discussions.

Be a detective: look for human rights activists!

In the museums’ exhibitions, the pupils are to look for persons (or a group) who, in one way or another, have made use of their human rights to influence society. The pupils must use their creativity when looking for human rights activists. Often the exhibitions show famous persons, politicians, scientists that have made, or have tried to make, an important impact. However, ordinary men and women are also important and have influence. Which human rights do they use in their efforts? Do they work for positive developments by ‘small’ actions or by big actions or movements like revolutions?

Working questions

  • What has the person (or persons/groups) done? What were the aims?
  • What was the historic and/or societal context? What was the problem that he/she/they tried to challenge?
  • Which human rights, according to Articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), did he/she/them use? It can be one or several.
  • At the time: were the human rights the person (s) used protected by Bulgarian law? Were they protected in the Constitution or through legally binding international human rights conventions that the state had ratified?

The result of the pupils’ work will show that there are many people, both in historical and contemporary times, who, by using their human rights, have had an important impact on society.

No change comes from silence!