The following is a short excerpt from a lecture I gave yesterday to international development students at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. It is adapted from a colleague’s work and the full text is available on request.
Let me begin with the story of Rosie.
South Africa has one of the most progressive laws against domestic violence which allows a victim to get a protection order very easily against the perpetrator. As part of that law, the government has set up counselling centres at some police stations to advise and assist women who wish to submit a complaint to the police and to get protection orders from local courts.
Rosie was a mother of five children who lived in a poor township outside Durban. This poor woman was regularly brutalised by her husband until one day he beat her so badly that she died.
“That’s awful, but why didn’t she get a protection order from the magistrate?”, you might ask.
The sad answer is that Rosie did not have the money to pay for the bus fare to go from her township to the nearest magistrate’s court.
The best laws in the land could not protect Rosie. Her right to life depended on the cost of a bus fare.
But there is more to Rosie’s story than just the money she did not have. Like so many poor people, Rosie lived in insecurity, marginalized and powerless.
Now let’s consider the women of Ciudad Juarez. The city is located in Mexico on the border with the US, just across from El Paso, Texas. Women from all over Mexico come to work in the maquilas of Ciudad Juarez – assembly plants built by US and Canadian companies to take advantage of the tax breaks and relatively cheap labour in Mexico.
The women are keen to improve their lives. Many of them work double shifts to make money, and then go to night college to improve their skills, but on their way from work to home or school in the dark alleys near their homes, hundreds of these women have disappeared, or have been raped, mutilated and murdered.
The women were earning more money than before, but their higher income did not make them more secure because they were still powerless and marginalized. The authorities did nothing to investigate or prosecute the killings until there was an international outcry.
I tell you about Rosie and the women of Ciudad Juarez to demonstrate the point that poverty cannot be defined only in terms of income. Rosie did not have that dollar and died for it. The women of Ciudad pushed their income beyond a couple of dollars a day but they were still insecure, marginalized and ignored – and died for it.
The World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty as $1.25 a day and poverty as $2 a day does not capture the full problem. We do not discount the importance of increasing the income of the poor but what we are saying is that income is only one aspect of poverty.
Look at the lives lived by people experiencing poverty and you will clearly see the deprivation. Listen to the voices of the poor and they will tell about insecurity. They will tell stories of war and violence. The poor will tell you about discrimination.
Being poor means being excluded and ignored – being voiceless. Poverty boils down to powerlessness – the poor have little control over their lives, they have only limited choices.
So, discrimination, deprivation, insecurity, violence, exclusion and the denial of voice – the hallmarks of poverty – are human rights problems. Human rights are claims that the weak have to hold the powerful to account – and that is why poverty is first and foremost a human rights problem.
The human rights movement must engage actively in the development discourse and campaign for the full recognition of all rights, political and civil as well as economic, social and cultural.
Freedom from want and freedom from fear are equally precious.
Governments hold the key to only part of the problem. We must also bring the global economic actors into the fold of human rights, including international financial institutions and companies. There can be no power without accountability, and it is high time that economic actors are held accountable for human rights. We need international standards and mechanisms through these standards can be enforced at the national level.