Human Dignity and Human Rights

From Women and Girls Lead, Volume 1 collection, lesson plan 6 of 6

Grade Levels: 9-12, College

Estimated Time Needed: 50 minutes + Assignments

Purpose of the Lesson: In this lesson, students will discuss what dignity means in their lives and examine the relationship between human dignity and human rights. They will consider the consequences for individuals and communities whose fundamental human rights are limited or denied, and develop a plan of action for improving the lives of women in their own community.


Students will:

  • Examine the concept of dignity, create a working definition for the term human dignity, and consider its relationship to human rights
  • Understand the socio-economic circumstances in Brazil that contribute to the catadores working conditions at the Jardim Gramacho landfill
  • Examine how the limitation of rights for the women depicted in Waste Land impacts their social, economic, and political opportunities
  • Demonstrate their understanding of the consequences of limiting human rights and value of human dignity by comparing their own community to the community depicted in Waste Land, identifying areas of commonality where access to one or more human rights for women has been denied or limited, and developing a plan of action to address that issue


Please note: Download teacher and student handouts in PDF format by clicking "Download lesson materials"

  • Film Modules
  • Waste Land: Pictures of Garbage (3:47)
  • Waste Land: Art and Transformation Film Module (8:02)
  • Waste Land: Human Dignity Film Module (9:27) (optional)
  • LCD projector or DVD player
  • Teacher Handouts
  • Waste Land: The Film in Context
  • Student Handouts:
  • Student Handout A: Art for Social Change Proposal
  • Several items of “clean” garbage (an empty soda can/bottle, a discarded wrapper, a plastic grocery bag, etc.)
  • Pens and writing paper
  • Whiteboard/blackboard and dry-erase markers/chalk
  • Art supplies (poster board, markers, paint, scissors, old magazines, glue, etc.)
  • Computers with internet access, if available
  • Activity

Writer: Allison Milewski

Allison Milewski is a curriculum specialist and educator with over ten years’ experience in arts and media education. She has developed and implemented primary and secondary school arts integration programs, professional development workshops, and arts and media curricula through her work with organizations such ITVS, Tribeca Film Institute, and Urban Arts Partnership where she managed a broad range of arts-based enrichment programs for over 20 New York City public schools. In addition, Allison launched PhotoForward in 2004 to provide photography and digital media instruction to under-served youth with the goal of encouraging self-exploration and active community engagement as citizen artists. Allison attended the Literacy through Photography Institute at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and received a BA in Liberal Arts from the New School for Social Research with a concentration in Media Studies. She is currently pursuing a certificate in Creative Art Therapy at the New School University.


You will need: pens and writing paper, whiteboard/blackboard, dry-erase markers/chalk, washable markers, and 10 large sheets of kraft paper (approximately 4 ft x 6 ft).

Goal: In preparation for viewing the Waste Land film modules, students will develop a working definition for human dignity, consider its relevance to human rights, and examine the resources, supports, and protections that are necessary to ensure and preserve it.

  • Write “Dignity” on the board and ask the class what this word means to them using the following questions as a guide:

    • What is dignity? How would you describe it?
    • When do you see the term dignity used and in what context? Can you give an example?
    • When do you feel like you have dignity?
    • What is the difference between being “dignified” and being treated with dignity?
    • What is the relationship between dignity and ideas like self-respect and self-worth?
    • How is our work and what we do to make a living connected to our sense of dignity?
    • What does the phrase “Human Dignity” mean to you?
    • Who deserves to be treated with dignity? Are some people more deserving than others? Why or why not?
    • Can you give an example of a time when you or someone you know was not treated with dignity? What impact did it have?
  • Using the feedback from the class discussion as a guide, develop a working definition for the phrase “Human Dignity”. Formal definitions for the terms “dignity” and “human dignity” can also be researched and incorporated into the class definition at this time. Return to the working definition throughout the process as necessary to revise and refine.

  • Divide the class into small groups and provide each with a large piece of kraft paper and washable markers. Ask for a volunteer from each group to lie on the paper while the group traces their outline. (Variation: groups can also use a smaller piece of paper and draw the outline of a person or a large circle.)

  • Ask students to think about qualities that define them as a unique individual using their definition for Human Dignity as a guide. (Examples: curiosity, intelligence, empathy, self-respect, hope). Have each group fill in the inside of the figure with words and phrases that describe those qualities using the following questions as prompts:

    • What makes me an individual and unique?
    • What are the qualities I am most proud of?
    • What do I aspire to become?
  • Next, ask the groups to think about what resources, supports, and protections they need to preserve their human dignity and reach their full human potential. They should write all of these words outside the lines on the left side of the figure. (Examples: education, job, friends, healthcare, a supportive family, a home, etc.)

  • To the right of the figure, ask the students to write all down the challenges and threats to their security and dignity. What forces or circumstances could threaten your safety, health, and human dignity, and prevent you from attaining your goals? (Examples: violence, abuse/bullying, poverty, no access to education, unemployment, lack of legal protection, illness, no access to medical care, etc.)

  • Make three columns on the board: Human Being, Protections, and Threats. Have each group share their feedback from the brainstorming activity and record the results for each category in the corresponding columns on the board. Review the results and discuss:

    • Are the all Protections listed essential for humans to thrive? Of the Protections we have listed, which ones would you consider the most important?
    • How do these Protections ensure human dignity?
    • What prevents humans from having or being treated with dignity?
    • Once something is established as essential to the human condition, is it a right?
    • Are all groups entitled to the same rights? Can/should rights be universal?
    • Are the Threats and Protections that we have discussed the same for the women and men in your community? What are the differences/similarities?
    • What other factors impact our access to human rights and cause human dignity to be denied? (Example: class, race, geography, religion, sexual orientation)
  • Let the students know that they will be referring back to their definition for Dignity throughout the lesson and ask them to keep the discussion in mind as they view the Video Modules from the film.

  • Leave the kraft paper from the groups’ brainstorming process posted in the room and keep the results from the discussion on hand for use in the Post-Screening Activity.

  • Variation: If time is limited, this activity can be made quicker by working as a class rather than in small groups. Hang one large sheet of kraft paper with a figure traced on it in the front of the room, and have the class can brainstorm and process each step of the activity together while the instructor or volunteers record the feedback.


You will need: pens and writing paper, LCD projector or DVD player, Waste Land: Pictures of Garbage, Waste Land: Human Dignity Film Module, Student Handout A: Film Module Worksheet (versions 1 & 2), and Waste Land: The Film in Context handout.


Step 1. Distribute the handout Waste Land: The Film in Context and discuss briefly as a class. This handout can also be given as homework for students to read in advance of the lesson. Explain that the term catador means “collector” in Portuguese and is the term used in the film and the handout to refer to the workers at the Jardim Gramacho landfill. Optional: Provide additional context for the film module by screening Waste Land: Art and Transformation Film Module and the trailer for the film Waste Land, which can be found at (

Step 2. While students are viewing the film modules they should take notes that will help guide the postscreening discussions and activities, using one of the two note-taking activities provided below. Have students keep their notes to use for reference during the postscreening activity.

Option 1: Distribute the Student Handout A.v1: Film Module Worksheet. Ask students to take notes while watching the film module and to record words, phrases, and quotes from the women’s stories that relate to the class discussion about dignity, with a focus on the following questions:

  • What circumstances led the women in the film to work at the Jardim Gramacho landfill?
  • What other opportunities to make a living were available to them?
  • How do they feel about being catadores?
  • How do they describe their experience working on the art project?
  • What threats to their dignity and safety do they describe in the film?
  • What supports and protections do they discuss?

Option 2: Provide students with the Student Handout A.v2: Film Module Worksheet and ask them to use the handout to take notes while they watch the film. Using the prescreening activity as a guide, instruct them to fill in the worksheet as follows:

  • Fill the inside of the figure with the quotes and phrases used by the women in the film to describe who they are, how they see themselves, and what they want to achieve.
  • On the left side of the figure, record the women’s descriptions of the resources, supports, and protections they have to preserve their human dignity and reach their full human potential.
  • On the right side of the figure, record the women’s description of the challenges and threats they face to their security and dignity.


You will need: pens and writing paper, LCD projector or DVD player, Student Handout B: Postscreening Activity Worksheet, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (plain-language version): 

Goal: Students will review the film modules and examine the relationship between human dignity and human rights with respect to the lives of the women depicted in Waste Land. They will consider the consequences for individuals and communities whose fundamental human rights are limited or denied, and develop a plan of action for improving the lives of women in their own community.

Additional online resources: Universal Declaration of Human Rights (official version):

Human Rights Factsheet:

  1. Postscreening Discussion: Begin by discussing Waste Land: Human Dignity Film Module and ask for volunteers to share their notes on the women’s stories from Student Handout A: Film Module Worksheet. Use the following prompts to guide the class discussion:

    • Why did Vik Muniz call his art project Pictures of Garbage? (Who/what were the images about? What impact do you think he wanted to have on the way people see and think about catadores?)

    • What are some of the circumstances that led the women in the film to work at the landfill? Why didn’t the women just work somewhere else? What other options are available to them?

    • Before he started his project, Vik described what he thought life at the landfill was like. He says, “This is where everything that is not good goes. Including the people.” But Valter and Suelem both say they are proud of their work as catadores and Magna describes it as “honest work.” Why do you think they are proud of their choice to work at the landfill?

    • In the film Magna talks about people reacting to the way she smells when she takes the bus home from working at the landfill. She says, “It’s better than turning tricks in Copacabana … It’s more dignified. I may stink now, but when I get home I’ll take a shower and I’ll be fine.” Based on this statement, how do you think Magna would define dignity? Although Magna and Suelem’s choices were limited, they chose to work at the landfill as opposed to the other options available to them. How does our ability to choose relate to our sense of personal dignity?

    • Suelem started working at the landfill when she was a child. What happened in her family that caused her to go to work at such a young age? What difficulties did her mother face when Suelem was growing up? How does her mother’s experience raising her compare to Suelem’s experience as a mother of two children?

    • From what we saw in the film, what protections are in place for women with children in this community? What support do Suelem and Magna have to help them provide for and protect their families? What challenges do their own children face?

    • Do you think there are challenges that women working at the landfill face that are different from the challenges that men face? Why or why not?

    • According to the women who participated in the art project, what impact did this experience have on their lives? How might their experience have been different if they were just the subject of the portraits and not part of the creative team that made the artwork?

    • When Magna is talking about how working on the project changed her, she says, “I started to see myself.” What do you think she meant by that?

    • Do you think Valter, Suelem, and Magna have dignity? Why or why not? According to what they said in the film, where does their sense of dignity come from? In what ways did the art project help to reinforce or restore their human dignity?

  2. Post-screening Activity:

    • Have students revisit their definition for human dignity and the results of their Prescreening activity brainstorm (“Human Being,” “Threats,” “Protections”). Ask them if there is anything they would like to add or change after having viewed and discussed the film modules.

    • Read these sentences from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and explain that this document was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 to set the standard for how human beings should behave toward one another so that everyone’s human dignity is respected.

    …Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world… —Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

    All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. —Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights


    • Why do you think the United Nations specifically includes dignity in its protection of human rights?
    • How is dignity different from basic essential rights of food, water, and shelter? How is it the same?
    • How do you think the protections we identified in the Prescreening activity compare to the human rights that are referenced in these quotes?

    • Divide the class into small groups and provide each student with Student Handout B: Postscreening Activity Worksheet and a copy of the plain-language version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

    • Ask the groups to read through the UDHR and think about how these human rights relate to the stories shared by the women in the film. On their worksheet, students should identify and list the rights that they think are being violated, limited, or denied to the women at the Jardim Gramacho landfill. Their selections should be based on the women’s own stories about their lives and the students should use their notes from Student Handout A: Film Module Worksheet for reference.

    • Next, students will revisit the UDHR and discuss how these human rights are experienced by women in their own community (e.g., their school or their neighborhood). They will list all the rights that they feel are being violated, limited, or denied to women they know. o Finally, they will compare their lists and identify one human right that has been limited for women in both communities. They will be asked to briefly describe the basis for their selection -- using evidence from the film and examples from their own community -- and the consequences of its limitation.

    • NOTE: Students should work as a team to complete the worksheet but each student will need to fill in her/his own copy to use as reference for the assessment essay.

    • When they have completed the activity, reconvene the class, ask each group to share their feedback, and discuss the results.

    • Introduce the following statistic: “The United Nations Development Programme states that although women and girls comprise approximately half of the world’s population, they account for 70 percent of the world’s poor.” Discuss:

    • Why do you think this is the case?

    • If women and men have the same rights, what factors could contribute to this disparity?
    • What in the film speaks to this statistic?
    • Note: If time and resources are available, this topic can be explored in more depth through Extension #4.

    Assessment Essays (Options Included Below):

    Option 1: In what way are the obstacles that women in your community face similar to or different from the obstacles faced by the women at the Jardim Gramacho landfill? Using Student Handout B: Postscreening Activity Worksheet for reference, describe how you would work to improve circumstances for women in your community, using the following questions to guide your essay:

    • What would your goals be?
    • What steps would you take to effect change?
    • Who would you work with to accomplish these goals?
    • What organizations are addressing these issues in your community and how would you collaborate with them?
    • What are the opportunities and resources available to you?
    • What obstacles would you face and what strategies would you use to overcome them?
    • How would your community change if you were successful in your efforts?
    • What would the outcome look like?

    Option 2: Until they are enacted and enforced, human rights are just words on a page. Read the following quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, who played a crucial role in developing and championing the UDHR. Describe what the quote means in your own words and respond to the questions below:

    “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” – Eleanor Roosevelt


    • Who is responsible for protecting the rights and dignity of individuals?
    • What does Roosevelt mean by “Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world”? How can our individual actions have a global impact?
    • How did the individual actions of the people depicted in Waste Land give “meaning” to the rights listed in the UDHR?
    • In the quote Eleanor Roosevelt says that human rights begin “in small places, close to home.” What actions can we take every day to preserve the rights and dignity of people in our families, our schools, and our communities?
  • Several of the pieces in the Pictures of Garbage project were inspired by images of women from art history. Have students research iconic images of women and examine the historical context and social messages that the images convey.

    • Have them consider the following: What do the images say about women and their role in their culture and community? Who created the images — were the artists primarily men or women — and how do you think did the artist’s perspective shapes the way women are represented? How do these representations compare to the students’ understanding of their own identity or the identity of women in their own community?
    • Print out black and white copies of the images and re-mix them by adding words, drawings, quotes, and phrases that illustrate, alter, revise, or "correct" the message that each image is portraying. Students can also use collage, mixed-media, color over the printouts for a pop art effect, or digitally alter the images in PhotoShop.
    • Sew, tape, glue, or staple the completed works together to create a "Remix Quilt" that can be displayed in the school.
    • The class can take the process further by exploring the social and cultural history of quilting and its significance to women’s history.
    • Complete the project by having students write an artist statement that incorporates the results of their research and describes the process and meaning behind their individual work as well as its relationship to the collective piece.
  • Is art an effective medium to bring about social change? Students will engage in a deeper examination of the Pictures of Garbage art project and analyze the short and long term impact of the project on the community at Jardim Gramacho landfill.

    • Have students view the full-length version of the film Waste Land.
    • What socio-economic challenges were the catadores dealing with before the project started? How accurate was the art project and the film’s representation of the community and the issues the people there were facing?
    • This documentary was made by the award-winning British director Lucy Walker. How do you think the film might have been different if a member of the Jardim Gramacho community had directed it? How does the perspective of the storyteller shape our understanding of communities other than our own?
    • What specific improvements came about as a result of the project? What circumstances are they still struggling with and working to change? Did the art project itself raise any issues within the community?
    • What role did community organizing play in the outcomes? How might the impact of the project have been different if there were no community-lead programs already in place at the landfill?
    • Students can also identify other community art projects and compare and contrast the strategies and impact of each.
    • Groups can present their findings to the class and use the results of their research to inform the planning process for their own art-based campaigns.
  • In the film, the portrait of one of the catadores, Irma, featured her holding a large cooking pot — an object that was both an essential part of her daily work and a visual representation of her role in the community of Jardim Gramacho. Have student’s research the history of women’s work in their own family and/or community. They can interview the women themselves or people who know them and collect stories and oral histories that illustrate how their work shaped their communities as well as their own identities. Students can take notes and/or record audio or video interviews, and they can also include their own voices and stories as part of the project. Based on their research and their collaborations with their subjects, students should identify a single object for each woman that is representative of their work and create a work of art using the following activities as a guide. Students can:

    • Create diptychs consisting of two images: a portrait of the woman and an image of the object. The portraits and the objects can be photographs, paintings, collages, or silhouettes. Each piece should be accompanied by excerpts from the woman’s interview or an essay or poem about her story and her work.
    • Use their audio and video interviews to create a multimedia presentation that weaves together stories of several women and the objects that represent their work. For a more dynamic alternative to PowerPoint, students can create their projects using the presentation tools at Prezi.
    • Write an essay or poem about each woman from the perspective of the object that she uses in her work and collect the poems in a chap book.
    • Make a timeline that traces the progression of objects through the generations of women in their families. For each object, include the story of the woman who used it and how she and her work shaped the family’s history.
  • The catadores at Jardim Gramacho play a vital role in rescuing valuable resources from the trash heap and protecting the environment in the process. Unlike the United States, Brazil does not have a comprehensive, government-run recycling collection program, but because of the work of people like Isis, Magna, Suelem, and thousands of other catadores, Brazil recycles and reuses double the amount of plastic bottles and aluminum cans than the U.S. The film Waste Land and Vik Muniz’ project helped to shed light on the misconception that what we throw away has no value. Students will examine the "luxury of waste" and how one person’s trash can indeed be another person’s treasure.

    • Students should research the facts about garbage and recycling in the United States and their own community and compare U.S. approaches to waste management to strategies and programs in other countries.
    • Working in groups, they can identify organizations and programs that are developing creative strategies to repurpose "garbage" into useful objects or tools such as:
    • Each group can develop a project to create a new use for items that commonly end up in the trash heap. They should work together to create an actual prototype and use that as the centerpiece of a campaign to raise awareness about recycling and developing innovative strategies for reducing waste.
  • Film module:
    Human Dignity
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