The Age of Human Rights?

The Institute for Human Rights at UAB is proud to take part in the annual Human Rights Day today, December 10th.  Today, the United Nations led the global celebration honoring the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent influence on global affairs.  This is the last post in our series on Human Rights Day, exploring possible next steps to protect, maintain, and expand human rights across the globe.

Looking Ahead: Third Generation Rights & Beyond

Human rights are broken into three generations: (Saito, 1996)

  1. Civil & political, embodied by the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These rights primarily protect the individual from government overreach, including the freedom of the press, right to ownership, and equality under the law.
  2. Economic, social, & cultural, embodied by the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These rights primarily ensure equality and equity of individuals in society, including the right to work, freedom of association, and right to an education.

Third Generation human rights relate to ‘solidarity’ and broadly represent the rights of collectives, expanding human rights beyond the individual (exemplified in Generations 1 and 2; Saito, 1996). However, unlike the previous two generations, Third Generation human rights do not have a corresponding UN Covenant or Declaration to codify or clarify what these rights specifically entail. At this point in time, Third Generation human rights include the right of people to self-determination, to peace, and to the environment (Cornescu, 2009).  This last right, to the environment, is an interesting development.  This shifts the focus of human rights beyond the present circumstance and expands the purview of human rights into future generations.  If the human rights doctrine embraces this temporal expansion, what new rights may arise?

Bridge of Harbin Songhua river, illuminated at night
Bridge of Harbin Songhua river. Source: siyang xue, Creative Commons

Pushing forward the jurisdiction human into years beyond the present requires a futuristic approach to the human rights agenda, attempting to account for potential crises that may threaten the lives and livelihoods of humans of the future.  Here are a few upcoming crises requiring the attention of the human rights community:

  • Climate Change. The US Global Change Research Program recently published the “Fourth National Climate Assessment”.  This assessment urges policy-makers to take action to mitigate the effects of the global climate change crisis.  If this crisis unfolds unchecked, marginalized populations (e.g. persons dealing with the consequences of poverty, indigenous groups, and so on) will first feel the brunt of climate change, followed by economic, health, and infrastructural catastrophe.  The unwillingness to take immediate steps to curb the effects of climate change infringes of the human rights of global populations.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI). Harvard Political Philosophy Professor Dr. Mathias Risse (2018) recently published a research brief illuminating the Gordian Knot of ethics, human rights, and the creation of artificial intelligence.  Two concerns are particularly relevant to human rights: (a) the transmission of bias from human to machine (i.e. discrimination and prejudice along gender, ethnic, ableist, or ageist dimensions); and (b) the problem of value alignment (i.e. ongoing debate regarding how and which normative values should be imparted into machines).  By the same breath, Risse contends human rights advocacy networks would do well to integrate AI into their operations for two purposes: 1) to increase the efficiency and minimize human risk in humanitarian emergencies, and 2) to insert the human rights community into the AI community.  As AI technology develops, perhaps even to the point of artificial consciousness, human rights language must offer clear rules and safeguards concerning the human-AI relationship.
  • Genetic Engineering. He Jiankui Shenzhen, China, recently claimed the mantle of the first research scientist to use genetic engineering to alter embryos during fertility treatments (pending corroboration from peer reviewers).  The human right to our own genetic material has sometimes been referred to as 4th Generation human rights, and this generation declares the human genome is a crucial part of human heritage (Cornescu, 2009).  The use of genetic engineering has been considered a potential boon for eradicating diseases such as HIV/AIDS, while simultaneously harkening to Nazi sentiments regarding the creation of a perfect human race. In the coming years, the human rights community must decide, in no uncertain terms, how and if humanity itself should be subject to engineering, and how human rights fits into this process.
  • Space Colonization. (In)Famous technology personality and businessman Elon Musk claims he and his private spaceflight company SpaceX will send the first human beings to Mars at or before the year 2024, build Mars’ first city in the 2030s, and terraform Mars into an Earth-like planet throughout the 2100s.  As Musk and other billionaires seek to tame the Final Frontier, ethical concerns about the human right to and human rights in outer space must be clarified.  Most notable of these issues is that of “internality”: through lack of access and/or privilege, many humans will remain Earth-bound, with “no true escape… from the atomic bomb, terrorism, or the ecological crisis, which is already dramatically destroying our environment” (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti, 2017, p. 215).  Stoner (2017) presents another arresting argument: space colonization is an inherently invasive act (a resurrection of the horrors of “New World” colonialism, nonetheless) and threatens to displace or destroy life on any extraterrestrial bodies that humans colonize.  Before hightailing it across outer space, perhaps our species should instead focus on the human rights crises on our home planet.
A view of outer space from the Hubble Telescope
NASA’s Hubble Telescope Finds Potential Kuiper Belt Targets for New Horizons Pluto Mission. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Creative Commons

The Age of Human Rights?

Eighteen years ago, former UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan penned an editorial for Project Syndicate Magazine, lauding the fact that the UN and its member states broadly coalesced around the norm of human rights: “Above all we have committed ourselves to the idea that no individual – regardless of gender, ethnicity or race – shall have his or her human rights abused or ignored.” Cautiously optimistic from the international community’s recent outrage towards massive human rights violations and movement towards protecting vulnerable populations, Annan proclaimed that the 21st century will be the “Age of Human Rights”.  Annan’s optimism stemmed from his observation that global civil society had, in the span of 52 years, began to take seriously extrajudicial violence both within and between member states.  There is another reason to be optimistic as well.  Humans in the current day have a universal language, mechanism, and procedure to prevent global catastrophe; this was not the case leading up to the last catastrophe – World War II.

Human rights are not static concepts – they are constantly defined and redefined through developments in research, policy, and practice.  Human rights are also ideal forms – translating abstract concepts from documents such as the UDHR into the messy world of lived experience is a Herculean task.  The idea of human rights is challenged by both thought and behavior, whether the ideology of nationalism or the actions of genocidaires.  Human rights are claimed, in the sense that each one of us has a responsibility to report suspected human rights violations, to defend the notion of universal human rights from potential spoilers, and to self-advocate in instances where our rights might be diminished.  The human rights movement must also be forward-looking, anticipating future dangers well before they happen, pre-emptively codifying human rights to account for the scientific and ethical progression of human civilization.  The human rights movement is an opportunity for humanity to write its own rulebook, guiding our approach to thorny issues such as climate change, AI, genetic engineering, and space colonization.

These and more profound challenges await our species in the coming years, and an adaptive, cogent, and enforceable doctrine of human rights will prepare humanity to successfully transform these challenges into opportunities for growth for the human species.  This growth is utterly contingent upon a global commitment to the idea of human rights – that all individuals deserve a free and full life, dignified by our shared human condition and experience.  If the Age of Human Rights is indeed here, the global community should adopt an outlook of futurism in human rights: looking into the coming years, taking stock of critical issues on the horizon, and utilizing the human rights movement to brace global civil society for the coming winds of change.  It is not enough that the Age of Human Rights decries violence in all of its forms.  To future generations, the Age of Human Rights must be known for its foresight identifying, preventing, and transforming global and (perhaps) extraterrestrial challenges for the betterment of all humankind.

This post was originally written for the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 2018).

References

Calanchi, A., Farina, A. & Barbanti, R. (2017). An eco-critical cultural approach to Mars colonization. Forum for World Literature Studies, 9(2), 205-216.

Cornescu, A. V. (2009). The generations of human’s rights.  Days of Law, Conference Proceedings.  Masaryk University.

Risse, M. (2018). Human rights and artificial intelligence: An urgently needed agenda. Cambridge, MA: Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Saito, N. T. (1996). Beyond civil rights: Considering “Third Generation” international human rights law in the United States. The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, 28(2), 387-412.

Stoner, I. (2017). Humans should not colonize Mars. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 3(3), 334-353.

The History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UN Flag
Flag of the United Nations, paixland, Creative Commons

The conception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) gave birth to human rights as they are known today. Adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the UDHR was a response to the atrocities that took place during World War II. As half the globe laid in ruin and millions of lives were taken, a dormant side of humanity seemed to reawaken within the world powers, and an international prioritization of human rights emerged. The UDHR, comprised of 30 Articles defining human rights, was an expression of humanity’s resurgence, as well as an international commitment to never allow such monstrous acts to take place again.

Those tasked with composing the UDHR were members of the Commission on Human Rights, chaired by the dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. Roosevelt transformed the role of the First Lady by using her position as a platform for social activism in women’s rights, African-American rights, and Depression-era workers’ rights. After her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died in 1945, she was appointed to be the US Delegate to the UN and served in this role for 7 years. It was her experience and passion for social activism that prepared the widow Roosevelt to Chair the commission responsible for creating the UDHR. Roosevelt asserted the Declaration would reflect more than Western ideas; to accomplish this, the Human Rights Commission was made up of members from various cultural and legal backgrounds from all around the world, showing respect for differing cultures and their customs while also ensuring each region had a hand in creating the document. Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the diverse commission was able to craft the UDHR in a unique and culturally-competent way.

Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt, Kevin Borland, Creative Commons

The UDHR was the first document in history to explicitly define what individual rights are and how they must be protected. The Preamble of the document outlines the rights of all human beings:

Whereas 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,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

Thus, for the first time in history, human rights were assembled and codified into a single document. The Member States, or sovereign states that are members of the United Nations, came together in agreement to protect and promote these rights. As consequence, the rights have shaped constitutional laws and democratic norms around the world, such as the Human Rights Act of 1998 in Britain and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States.

Silhouette of a dove holding an olive branch
Dove Silhouette, Creative Commons

The Commission on Human Rights defined human rights with the conception of the UDHR. By fusing dignity, fairness, equality, respect, and independence, the UN defines human rights as:

rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

Human rights are the cross-cutting theme within every UN agency. They have inspired the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are goals to “provide peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” These planet-, urbanization-, and group-focused goals substantially contribute to the realization of human rights, as the human rights-based approach to development stipulates development is conducive to the promotion of human rights.  In the ideal sense, human rights are a guiding force toward living in global harmony, and through the promotion of the basic rights bestowed by the UDHR, the world has made strides toward achieving that harmony.

 

International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2018

Today, December 3, 2018, is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), an observance promoted by the United Nations (UN). This year’s theme, “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” accommodates the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s pledge to “leave no one behind” which envisions sustainable urbanization, namely through a smart-city approach that prioritizes digitalization, clean energy, technologies, and service delivery. Such ambition is salient to persons with disabilities because, above all, achieving these goals will result in communities that are more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

It is argued the main contribution to why persons with disabilities have been excluded from public life is the practice of the medical model of disability (MMD) which embraces the perspective of non-disabled persons, reducing persons with disabilities to dysfunctional people in-need of medical treatment, with emphasis on normative functioning of the body. As a result, persons with disabilities are often assigned a sick role that exempts them from activities and expectations of productivity, leaving them as passive recipients of medical goods and services. These medicalized expectations of normality, restoration, and functional independence can devalue the lived experiences of persons with disabilities, thus inviting discrimination into their daily lives.

On the contrary, the social model of disability (SMD) challenges the knowledge/power differential employed by medical authorities and suggests empowerment for persons with disabilities, ultimately strengthening the patient role and influencing changes in treatment paradigms. Furthermore, the SMD argues that social practices are what disable persons with impairments, placing many persons with disabilities into isolating circumstances and preventing full civil participation. Whether it be employment in Alabama or being a refugee in Kenya, the SMD challenges the MMD by suggesting persons with disabilities are an oppressed group that experiences discrimination and deserving of equal treatment.

On December 13, 2006, the UN adopted the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international agreement which details the rights of persons with disabilities and lists codes for implementation, suggesting both states and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) are to coordinate to fulfill such rights. In the following years, nations spanning the globe have ratified the CRPD, such as Jordan (2008) and Ireland (2018), thus strengthening protections for persons with disabilities. Although the United States is one of the only nations to have yet ratified the CRPD, this international document is largely modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed in 1990, which prohibits discrimination toward persons with disabilities. As a result, we are only seeing the beginning of what is to come for accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities, both domestically and globally.

Disabled people celebrate the passage of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016 by the Lok Sabha, in New Delhi. Source: Hindustan Times, Creative Commons

 

To commemorate IDPD 2018, the Institute for Human Rights is holding a blog series today that addresses access, inclusion, and representation for persons with disabilities, namely through the influence of media and power of politics.

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” – George H.W. Bush at the signing of the ADA

Africa – Not a Country but a Continent

One of the most famous blunders made by former U.S. President George W. Bush was, “Africa is a nation that suffers from terrible disease.” President Bush, like many others, misconstrued the fact that Africa is not a country, but a continent.

Africa consists of 54 different countries with a vast array of cultures, languages, religions, politics, agriculture, and cuisine. Many people assume that in Africa, people speak “African” or do not understand other languages; however, this is quite incorrect. In Africa, there are over 2,000 languages such as Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili. Surprisingly the most spoken language is Arabic, with over 170 million speakers. Furthermore, English is the official language in 24 of the nations. “About 25 percent of the languages spoken in African countries aren’t recognized anywhere else in the world, which is a testament to its diversity and fullness.

There are approximately 200 independent countries in the world and a quarter of them are in Africa. In fact, Africa has a population of over one billion people and is the second largest continent in the world. To demonstrate the immensity of Africa, the USA, China, India, Europe, and Japan could all fit inside its geographic border.

Size of Africa. Source: Karl Krause, Creative Commons

People often view the countries in Africa as poor. While 218 million individuals live in extreme poverty, 1 in 3 Africans are considered middle class. Additionally, not all people in Africa live in “huts”. About 43% of individuals in Africa live in urban areas. In fact, there are more than 50 cities with a population of over a million people. Also, approximately 70% of Africa’s population is under the age of 30. So, when you combine this young demographic with diversified urban centers, you generate the possibility of innovation throughout the continent. Furthermore, their economy is expanding – out of the 10 fastest growing economies, 6 are in Africa. It is not possible to apply one concept to the entirety of Africa. Yes, some countries are poor, especially in sub-Saharan Africa; however, there are countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt that are fairly wealthy. Nigeria exports the majority of the world’s oil, has a GDP of over $594 billion, and is projected to be one of the world’s largest economies in just a couple of years. While South Africa is a well-known tourist location, it also has the 18th largest stock exchange in the world. Egypt is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa.

In terms of landscape, Africa is quite diversified. While the Saharan desert covers one-third of the continent, there are also rainforests, mountains, and lakes. Africa’s largest vegetation zones do not comprise of deserts or rainforests, but, in fact, savannas which are tropical grasslands. There is a myriad of ecosystems in Africa. For example, the Sahara desert is the world’s largest hot desert and has over 300 species of wildlife such as the cheetah, ostrich, and hyrax. On the flip side, the Congo and the Nile are the world’s deepest and longest rivers, respectively. Africa is also home to numerous wetlands, specifically in the Botswana which includes saline lakes, freshwater forests, and massive floodplains. There are also tropical forests in Central and West Africa such as the Congo rainforest.

 

River Clouds Landscape Sky South Africa Scenic

Western media tends to only portray the negative aspects of Africa – violence, revolution, and wars. However, there is so much more to Africa than the negatives because it is not all danger and violence. For example, Zambia is quite peaceful and has had six presidents since becoming independent in 1964. Furthermore, it has never had a civil war. In Liberia, the former President was named by Time as “one of the top 10 female leaders in the world”. Additionally, she earned a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in women’s rights. Western countries tend to show Africans as powerless and reliant on Western aid to survive. In fact, many ads in the West embody this stereotype by depicting Africans as sad, lonely, and dirty children that need money. However, this is nothing further from the truth. It is thought that Western countries are the ones who help out Africans and are responsible for their well-being. But the truth is that African people who live outside of Africa send more money to their families than all of the aid combined from the Western countries. That is not to say that Western countries should not offer assistance when it is needed, but they must change their minds about what it means to live in Africa. Africa is not helpless, there are many projects created by African people. A Somalian woman, Hawa Abdi, implemented a health clinic, which has now developed into a “school, refugee camp, and hospital for over 90,000 women and children made homeless in the war”. Another example would be the Akon Lighting Africa project, which provides electricity the usage of solar energy to those in Africa.

There are also many assumptions about Africa being a place that is technologically backward. They see it as a place without phones, social media, internet, etc. However, Africa is quite the contrary by becoming “the world’s second most connected region by mobile subscriptions with over 754 million connections”. Interestingly enough, people in Kenya are 4 times more likely to have a cell phone than have access to a toilet. Moreover, at least 80% of African people have access to a mobile device. There are also many innovative advances for renewable energy such as hydroelectric power and solar panels. A lot of African countries are ahead of Western countries when it comes to sustainable energy. Kenya alone gets 50% of their energy from hydroelectricity, while in the UK and US, only 11% of their energy comes from renewable sources. In terms of creativity, Africa has numerous resourceful inventions such as traffic-regulating robots, a biomedical smart jacket that can diagnose pneumonia, and a device that fuses live neurons into a silicon chip.

There is no way to identify Africa as simply one thing. Africa is diverse in areas such as people, language, economy, landscape, technology, and innovations.

George Kimble captivated these sentiments best when he said, “The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it.

Sonita

Photo by IHR.

On Tuesday, November 13, the Institute for Human Rights and Consulate General of Switzerland – Atlanta co-sponsored a showing Sonita, a film based on a 15-year-old girl from Afghanistan who immigrated to Iran in order to flee the Taliban. Over the course of the three years Sonita is filmed, she is able to receive assistance at a center for refugee children in Tehran, Iran where she works on her dream of becoming a rapper by performing for her classmates and pursuing a place to record her music.

What many people are unaware of is the Afghani tradition of forcing children into marriage, with Sonita’s family setting her price as $9,000. Without intervention from the filmmaker, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghamim, who paid her family $2,000 to postpone her marriage, Sonita might have not made it to where she is now. To make matters worse, women are not allowed to sing in Iran. So, in order for Sonita to continue her dream of becoming a rapper, the shelter could no longer be affiliated with her. Maghami then managed to take Sonita to the United States, without her parent’s permission, to pursue a career in rap.

Maghami claimed, “I can’t film people who are suffering for something I can afford, when they are giving their life, their story, to me,” she says firmly. What about a film-maker’s duty to be an objective observer? She shakes her head. “It’s always a lie. You are never a fly on the wall. You are always an elephant in the room. You change everything with your presence. I don’t believe objectivity is important or even happens. Human stories are always subjective and personal. The film-maker decides, creates.”

Maghami started filming this documentary to help her cousin who worked at the refugee center, while her cousin just wanted to help Sonita find some training for her music. However, these selfless acts dramatically changed a young woman’s entire life.

Sonita shares the story of one young woman’s strength, perseverance, and the ability to use music as a vehicle to confront social injustice. This film not only gives the audience an inside look to both a tradition and country many are unfamiliar with, but also provides Sonita with the voice she needs to have her story heard.

The Plight of China’s Migrant Workers

by Dianna Bai

a photo of a Chinese shoemaker
The shoemaker’s children always go barefoot. Having an issue with one of your shoes? No problem, the old cobbler on the sidewalk corner can help you. There are less and less street workers like that now in China, but is some places of cities, we can easily found plenty of them. They are mainly old people, who I guess has always been doing this, in this place, from winter to summer, even when it is raining. The price is still attractive for clients who prefer deal in the street rather than in shops… but for how long. This is China. Source: Gauthier DELECROIX, Creative Commons

China’s newfound economic prowess since the reform and opening has been shouldered by its massive population of migrant laborers. A significant surplus of unskilled workers and a lax regulatory environment has given Chinese factories, like those in many developing countries, a competitive edge over their counterparts in the Global North. In this troubling “race to the bottom,” a great number of Chinese factories overwork and underpay their rank-and-file employees, at times subjecting them to sordid and dangerous conditions. Although brands such as Nike, Walmart and Apple have been pressured by the international media and human rights organizations to take responsibility for labor rights within their supply chains, it is difficult to separate the profits of these corporations from their habitual exploitation of the weak human rights standards and ineffective enforcement of regulations in countries like China.

For most of China’s 131 million migrant workers, leaving the village and traveling to the city to find gainful employment is the greatest opportunity as well as the most harrowing journey of their lives. The freedom and ability to leave their rural hometown are points of pride for migrant workers, yet the enormous surplus of labor in the urban areas has led to fierce competition in the market, forcing them to accept low wages, no benefits, poor working conditions, strict work regimes, and little job security. In the documentary China Blue, we see employees of the blue jean factory worked for pennies an hour, less than the minimum wage, and are often forced to work overtime – even overnight – to meet shipping deadlines. Some are so exhausted by continuous hours of labor that they fall asleep at their workstations, risking reprimand by their supervisors. Factory workers often do not get paid on time and new workers lose their first month’s paycheck as a “deposit,” a sum of money they never receive if they choose to quit. Furthermore, migrant workers have no access to healthcare or education in the city as a result of the discriminatory hukou system that binds them legally to their rural hometowns. China has a comprehensive set of labor laws including minimum wage, but local and provincial officials rarely enforce them in order to attract foreign businesses and boost their regions’ economic growth. As a result, migrant workers are exploited on dual levels, by the factories that employ them and the state that fails to protect them.

Most migrant workers do not understand their legal rights; they have no organized way to defend them. Workers have some inkling of their rights when it is most obvious. However, they lack knowledge of the comprehensive but unenforced regulations protecting them. In China Blue, the workers at the blue jean factory held a haphazard strike after their pay had been delayed for three months. There have also been some success stories of migrant workers taking legal actions against their employers. Lawyers like Zhou Litai have made triumphant careers from helping injured workers litigate with their employers for rightful compensation. Yet a string of individual cases won by workers has not changed the basic conditions of factories. Because of an authoritarian government that fears the rise of civil society, the Chinese government has not allowed independent labor unions to form in China. In developed countries, these types of organizations undergirded the labor rights movement during the industrialization process. They educated workers, negotiated with factory owners on their behalf, and organized strikes when necessary. If Chinese workers are not empowered to speak up for themselves, then who has the luxury to speak for them?

One might argue that Western consumers have the luxury to speak up for these exploited workers by demanding corporations to “clean up” their supply chains. The anti-sweatshop movement has gained great momentum in the past two decades. Due to negative media attention and pressure from NGOs, many multinational corporations that source overseas have devoted significant resources and efforts to audit the factories in their supply chains, even establishing social compliance divisions solely dedicated to this goal. Brands such as Nike at first defended the conditions in its Indonesian factories, contending that their corporation has created thousands of jobs for people who lack better opportunities. Philip Knight, the founder of Nike, pointed out: “People argued that we were taking advantage of the poor Japanese workers 20 years ago. Now Japan makes no Nikes and imports $100 million of them.” Nevertheless, Nike soon followed cues from other corporations and drafted a code of conduct for its factories.

a portrait of a Chinese farmer
Happy Farmer. Farmer after working in the morning – getting ready to deliver vegetables to town for lunch. Jiashan, China Source: DaiLuo, Creative Commons.

The global movement for labor rights has brought international attention to the plight of workers in developing countries and put the issue on the table for multinational corporations. However, there is a serious inherent problem in letting corporations police themselves: a misalignment of incentives. The primary aims of private corporations are to make profits, satisfy customers, and reward shareholders. They accomplish these goals by constantly trying to improve cost efficiency, which is what attracts them to developing world factories. Apple, for example, produces its products in China because of the huge economies of scales that can be achieved there as opposed to the United States. The speed and flexibility of the Chinese manufacturing sector has drawn in companies like Apple, but it comes at the price of poorer labor conditions. Cost efficiency puts the corporations’ incentives in misalignment with social compliance divisions. Because social compliance divisions do not usually cooperate with buying departments, multinational corporations are essentially asking factories to improve the conditions for their workers while still demanding the same low prices. This disjunction has led to massive falsification of records by factory owners, undermining the integrity of the audit process. The audit profession itself is also plagued with human capital problems and instances of bribery. Corporations, in turn, have little incentive to investigate fraud so long as they can present a picture of compliance to concerned consumers. They can essentially pay lip service to the human rights movement by going along with the records presented to them. In the case of mass falsification, concerned consumers cannot even be certain that a brand which claims to buy from only factories with good labor conditions is, in fact, doing so.

Instead of simply paying attention to better audits of factories from corporations, consumers who are concerned about the labor conditions in China should also demand “responsible prices” at the manufacturing level. Currently, the prices that brands pay to factory owners in China are so low that they face the dilemma of improving labor conditions and losing business or falsifying records to comply with labor standards. Timberland, for example, will pay only $20 per shoe that it buys from a manufacturer, while selling it to the retailer for $50, which then sells it to consumers for $100. In the $80 of revenue gained after the product has been purchased from the manufacturer, there must be some room to offer the manufacturer a better price without passing on the cost to consumers. Consumer groups should scrutinize the profit structure of brands and retailers and buy goods that pay manufacturers better, so that manufacturers can pass on the generosity to their workers. This requires the buying department and the social compliance division to work together to establish an agreeable price for products that takes into account favorable labor conditions. This doesn’t necessarily have to come with a loss of profits for the brands and retailers. Favorable corporations will gain the loyalty and goodwill of a growing number of consumers who are concerned about emerging market labor conditions.

However, a consumer can only do so much on the demand side. Much of the work to be done on labor rights must come from the workers themselves. NGOs working in this field must continue educating workers on labor rights, encouraging them to organize, and advocating for the establishment of true, independent labor unions. China’s official labor union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), functions more as a peacekeeping organ between workers and management rather than a labor union truly representing the interests of workers. Although the ACFTU has considerable political clout at the national level and lobbies for labor protection laws, its chapters at various factories rarely make demands on behalf of workers. ACFTU union leaders are generally chosen by the factory management and remain beholden to the management. Chinese workers need unions with democratically elected leaders who will truly represent their interests rather than serving as a “bridge” between workers and the management. Without autonomous labor unions representing them, workers cannot bargain collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Their rights enshrined by Chinese law will go unheeded.

From one perspective, multinational corporations that choose to manufacture their products in China are giving thousands of Chinese workers opportunities they would never have had in the countryside. Although migrant workers often face laborious conditions in factories, they are earning far more than their rural counterparts and gaining more consumption power. As China becomes wealthier as a result of the economic growth driven by the export-oriented manufacturing sector, workers will naturally begin to demand more rights and better living standards. This process has taken place during the industrialization process in many former developing countries. In the meantime, however, multinational corporations are keen to exploit – for as long as they can – an inherently broken legal system and a profoundly undemocratic culture that has relegated millions of Chinese migrant workers to second-class citizenry. When China introduced in law in 2006 to give labor unions more concrete power, multinational corporations were the first to protest by implying they would move their factories elsewhere. Rather than relying on a social compliance scheme that often tolerates the falsification of records during audits, consumers should also urge corporations to offer responsible prices for manufacturers so that they can give workers better treatment without losing business. Most importantly, the Chinese and international human rights movement must continue their efforts to educate workers on labor rights and promote a political environment that will allow the formation of independent labor unions.

 

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

India’s Relationship with the Third Gender

Simran, 30, walks through Bandra in Mumbai to ask tourists for money so she can pay her Guru. Photo by Sara Hilton for The New York Times

What is the Third Gender?

In April of 2014, the Supreme Court of India formally recognized the existence of a third gender. There is no formal definition of the third gender in India. People who identify as neither man nor woman are commonly referred to as Hijra or transgender. The Hijra have been subject to discrimination, harassment, and persecution for their genderqueer self-identification. Along with the queer community, Hijras have been targeted by law enforcement and government officials under Section 377. This law was used to criminalize any queer sexual acts and has been used to justify discrimination and mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community since its enactment in British colonial era India.

What Is the History of the Third Gender In India?

Although the Hijra have been subject to much hate and discrimination in recent times, this has not always been the case. Hijras were well-respected and revered in ancient India. In fact, Hijras play important roles in many Hindu religious texts. One such text talks about the life of Lord Rama, one of the most virtuous Hindu heroes. At some point, Lord Rama was banished from his kingdom. After being banished, he told his followers that the men and women should wipe their tears and leave him. All of the men and women left. However, a group of people known as the Hijra remained standing before him. They were neither men nor women and refused to leave until Lord Rama returned fourteen years later. This community was praised for showing such loyalty.

Hijras also held religious authority and important court positions and administrative roles in Mughal era India. Believed to have the ability to bless, many would seek out Hijras for blessings during important religious ceremonies.  In ancient India, the Hijras were a community that was respected for being extremely loyal and were well trusted enough to be given important religious and governmental roles. This begs the question. If Hijras played an important role in ancient Indian society, then why are Hijras ostracized and persecuted in modern India?

Why Is the Third Gender Ostracized Today?

The answer is due in large part to the British colonization of India. When the British took over direct rule of India and absolved the British East India Company, government officials sought to enforce their western ideas and beliefs on Indians. Lawmakers accomplished this goal by enacting moral laws that banned anything that western society viewed as unclean and dirty. This included the creation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which made illegal any “unnatural offenses” that were deemed “against the order of nature.” From when Section 377 was implemented in 1858 to when it was recently deemed unconstitutional on 6 September 2018, Section 377 was used as justification to mistreat and punish Hijras, queers, and the LGBTQ+ community.

The western concept of hating and marginalizing anybody who was not straight and cisgender took hold in Indian society. The Hijra community was forced from a well-respected role as pillars of religious and governmental society to being social outcasts. This social exile is responsible for the socioeconomic and medical difficulties that Hijras face. Hijras are prone to being economically challenged because of the stigmas that they face. They are denied educational opportunities, jobs, and discriminated against in every area of their lives.

What are the Social, Economic, and Medical Problems Caused By Lasting Social Stigmas?

Despite gaining their independence from Britain in 1947, India has only recently begun to make progress on removing legislation that has been used to attack the Hijra and LGBTQ+ population. The many decades of subjugation stretching back generations have left a mark. Many of the hateful western views towards LGBTQ+ people have become deeply ingrained in India’s culture. Even with many public relations campaigns along with a growing group of supporters, the vast majority of Indians still are against Hijras. Many Indians don’t respect Hijras worth. Hijras are often called to come to auspicious events such as marriages and child-births for blessings. Many Indians view the Hijras as bringing good luck and warding off evil spirits. Yet because of widespread discrimination, the majority of Hijras are forced to beg for money since they are barred from most employment opportunities. Due to this, some of the common means of living for Hijras are begging, dancing, and prostitution.

Open employment discrimination has run rampant because of the lack of workplace protections and discrimination laws that are not comprehensive or well-enforced. Continued police harassment has also burdened the Hijra community. Many police officers have jailed and imprisoned the Hijra community over offenses such as begging, prostitution, and having queer sex. This community has had to resort to such practices because of the refusal to integrate Hijras into the economy. Yet despite not being able to find work, Hijras are attacked even more for trying desperately to survive in a society that has practiced institutionalized, pursued, and encouraged harmful policies towards this community since colonial times.

In addition to facing issues with getting employed, Hijras also have difficulties receiving access to basic medical care. There have been many unfortunate instances of medical malpractice against Hijra people. The Civilian Welfare Foundation is an NGO that conducted studies on the medical problems faced by the transgender community. The study found that the majority of doctors are not educated on gender identity issues and that a transphobic stigma is ingrained amongst medical professionals which is responsible for the lack of proper medical care for Hijras.

The study highlighted the stories of Saikat and Anushri. Saikat was a transgender patient who died from lack of treatment following a train accident. The reason is that doctors could not decide whether to admit her to the male or the female ward. Anushi was gang-raped by several men and sought medical treatment. However, doctors refused to treat her because she was transgender and even denied her access to anti-HIV medication. These two stories highlight the dangerous impact that social stigmas have on our society. In addition to facing persecution and discrimination daily, Hijra people are at risk for bodily harm and even death from bigoted doctors and nurses who are not trained to deal with gender identity issues.

Fear of the social stigmas for being associated with the transgender community is a major reason why many doctors try to avoid seeing Hijra patients and why some outright refuse treatment altogether. Adding on to social fears, healthcare professionals have been hesitant to treat Hijra people because of the risk of criminal prosecution under Section 377. Up until the recent 2018 Supreme Court decision, it was illegal to commit queer sexual acts as well as to aid and abet these acts. There have been cases of individuals being arrested simply for selling condoms to Hijra and queer people. The lack of proper medical care and access to safe sex talks and practices has led to an HIV rate amongst Hijras that is 100 times the national average. Doctors fear Hijra patients because they are misinformed and believe in multigenerational social stigmas. Hijra patients fear doctors because of the risks of being mistreated and harmed by substandard or complete refusal of medical care. This toxic mutual distrust can only continue to harm the Hijra community.

Rithika, 23 and Ammu, 21, live with their Guru in the Koliwada area of Mumbai. Photo by Sara Hylton for the New York Times.

What Are the Recent Successes For the Hijra Community?

There are some recent successes that have helped the Hijra people. The Right for Transgender Persons Bill drafted in 2014 and passed in 2016 has been a major milestone in protecting the Hijra community. The law declared many forms of discrimination against Hijras to be illegal and banned the forcing of Hijras to beg or to leave their homes. Other benefits include the creation of a committee that focuses on helping Hijra pursue education by giving access to scholarships and textbooks among other needs. The bill has also allowed for Hijras to be recognized as socially and economically disadvantaged which qualifies Hijras for benefits from India’s Affirmative Action program. However, there are downsides to the bill as well. Hijra people have to go through a district screening process to receive their third gender certification and ID cards. This approach can lead to refusal of benefits to Hijras based upon the decision of a committee without oversight and comprised of people not trained in gender identity issues.

Also occurring in 2014 was the landmark Supreme Court decision that officially recognized the existence of the third gender. This has allowed for Hijras to opt for third gender classification on official legal documents such as driver’s licenses and passports. The decision has also signified acceptance of the Hijra community’s existence by a government that has continuously sought to marginalize those who aren’t cisgender. However, this decision has also come up short in addressing the many problems Hijras face. Third gender IDs, while motivated by good intentions, do not address many basic rights. When getting married, transferring property, or adopting children there are only cisgender ordinances in place. This means that Hijras cannot get married, cannot leave behind property for their kids, and cannot adopt kids that desperately need good homes while being recognized and identifying legally as the third gender.

Another recent Supreme Court decision that has increased the rights of Hijras happened in 2017. The court declared that the Right to Privacy was a fundamental right to all individuals and enacted protections for the privacy of Hijras’ sexual orientations. This will go a long way toward helping prevent socioeconomic and medical discrimination.

In addition to legal successes, there have also been gains in societal acceptance and integration of the Hijra community. In 2017 India accomplished many firsts. Joyita Mondal became India’s first third gender judge, Tamil Nadu became India’s first Hijra police officer, Natasha Biswas became India’s first third gender beauty pageant winner, and Kochi Metro Rail Ltd. became India’s first government-owned company to provide bulk employment to Hijras. There are plenty more Hijra success stories out there which are a sign of widespread societal change. There is hope that the social stigmas that have plagued the Hijra community will soon be fully erased.

It is clear that Hijras face many challenges in modern times. Widespread social stigmas and discrimination against this community were promoted for generations. It is also clear that such large problems take a long time to fix. However, if legal efforts and public relations campaigns are continued then India can one day become a society that fully embraces and supports all people regardless of sexual or gender orientation.

 

 

 

Gerrymandering’s Effects on Democracy

by Pam Zuber

The Gerry-Mander political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale
The Gerry-Mander: political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale. Source: Wikicommons.

The Gerry-Mander is a name for a creature that appeared in editorial cartoons in 1812 and 1813. Given how gerrymandering has shaped and can shape politics in the United States, calling a Gerry-Mander a monster is no mere exaggeration. Gerrymandering takes its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, legislators in Massachusetts’s Democratic-Republican Party redrew the map of a senatorial district to concentrate voters of its party in certain geographic areas. The same map dispersed voters of the rival political party, the Federalists, to separate districts.

Governor Gerry signed this map into law in 1812. This map drew the wrath of the opposing Federalists and spawned the cartoon that criticized the redistricting. The practice and the cartoon gave us a term for politically based redistricting that political bodies still use. We continue to use the term because the practice continues to this day. Politicians still reshape voting districts to suit their political purposes, much as they did in Gerry’s day.

Why Does Gerrymandering Violate Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution?

Creating electoral districts that skew political party representation contradicts democratic principles and human rights. Gerrymandering provides the illusion of democracy but actually denies it. The process still perpetuates voting districts. People in these districts have the ability to vote and usually have their choice of candidates. But, which candidates can they support? People in one district who traditionally vote for one party might not be able to fully support the candidates they would have seen if their districts were more traditionally configured. The voters might have choices, but false choices.

These false choices can undermine their lives. For example, voters might want to vote for candidates who support government-sponsored health insurance, but find that gerrymandering is affecting their choices. Their choices and their voices might be muffled because their votes do not count as much as they could have counted when combined with additional votes for the same candidates and causes. Their votes might not count since they are dispersed among other districts and not concentrated like the votes of other parties in gerrymandered districts.

Redistricting appears to be unconstitutional. It denies basic rights granted by the U.S. Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Shifting geographic precincts to highlight or downplay specific candidates appears to abridge the right to vote, a direct violation of the Constitution.

Do People Gerrymander Today?

Yes. Politicians of both parties continue to create electoral districts that blatantly benefit their political parties. A federal court declared in August 2018 that the state of North Carolina’s map of Congressional districts favored Republicans. The court declared that the map “constitutes an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment, and Article I of the Constitution.” The next month, the same federal judges ruled that although this map did feature gerrymandering, there would not be enough time to change the map in time for the elections planned for November 2018. North Carolina would not be able to not use this map after these elections, so North Carolina will need to use a new Congressional map for elections in 2020.

Gerrymandering has occurred in other regions of the country. In 2016, the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the Wisconsin Legislature drew electoral maps that favored Republican Party candidates in the state in 2012 and 2014. The case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But, in June, 2018, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, stating that the bodies bringing the case lacked the legal standing to do so. It sent the case back to lower federal courts. This meant that Wisconsin would use the same maps in November 2018 elections.

A number of political insiders expect that voters throughout the United States will use their votes in the November 2018 elections as a way to protest U.S. president Donald Trump and his fellow members of the Republican Party. But, if gerrymandered maps remain in place, they could skew results from the state. They could prevent candidates from certain parties from receiving the majority of votes in their districts and winning their elections.

Gerrymandering harms political parties as well. Both parties engage in such blatant practices for obvious purposes. Such practices tarnish the reputations of the parties as well as the democratic process. The electorate might view such tactics as political dirty tricks, which could discourage voters from supporting political parties, candidates, elections, and causes.

The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the topic of gerrymandering in Maryland in 2018 by not hearing cases about redistricting in that U.S. state. Maryland legislators redrew this map in 2010. Just two years later, a Democratic Party candidate beat a longtime Republican incumbent in a race for a U.S. Congressional seat in Maryland, leading to charges that the state’s Democratic Party redrew Congressional maps to give itself advantages that led to such electoral victories.

a voting district map from 2011
Carroll County Voting District 2011. Source: J. Albert Bowden II, Creative Commons.

How Can Gerrymandering Affect Politics?

It is clear, then, that parties do redraw maps and create new electoral districts. It appears that they do this to try to produce political advantages. But, does this redistricting really create such results? In the case of Maryland, it appears that redistricting has made a significant difference. In 2012, Democratic Party candidate John Mulaney beat Republican Congressional representative Roscoe G. Bartlett. At the time of his defeat, Bartlett had served eleven terms (twenty-two years) in the U.S. Congress. Bartlett blamed redistricting on his loss. “We had the most gerrymandered district in the country.” This is significant in a number of ways. Mulaney was a new challenger while his opponent was an entrenched, longtime incumbent. It is often difficult for challengers to beat politicians who have been in office a long time. Incumbent politicians have

  • Name recognition
  • War chests of money to help fund their campaigns
  • Fellow established politicians who are colleagues who can campaign and vouch for them
  • Reputations and accomplishments from their administrations that they can cite in campaigns

Election campaigns are expensive and time-consuming. They require money, connections, and clout. Working in established offices can help people accomplish all three. How hard is it to unseat an established candidate? According to economics reporter John W. Schoen, in 2012, the year of Maryland’s Bartlett/Mulaney race, 90 percent of the people serving in the U.S. Congress kept their seats. This means that Mulaney was one of the minority of 10 percent of challengers who unseated a Congressional representative. His redrawn district could have helped him overcome such long odds.

Are People Fighting Gerrymandering?

Ending gerrymandering restores people’s votes, which helps restore their voices. Groups and individuals hope they can help people restore their voices. Since gerrymandering is about voting rights, it is only fitting that some groups are using electoral means to fight the practice. A Michigan-based group called Voters Not Politicians wants to end gerrymandering in the state. It appears that opposing groups want gerrymandering to continue.

In 2017, Voters Not Politicians collected thousands of signatures on petitions that supported ballot initiatives against gerrymandering in Michigan. The organization needed to collect 315,654 signatures from August to December 2017. In a possible sign of widespread support for anti-gerrymandering efforts, almost 450,000 people signed the petitions. A number of experts say this proposal is sorely needed in the state. For example, a June 24, 2018 headline in the Detroit Free Press noted that “Michigan is an extreme example of gerrymandering.”

Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers approved the ballot proposal. But, organizations such as Save Michigan’s Constitution opposed this ballot proposal as overly broad and took their opposition to the Michigan Supreme Court. The court rejected this opposition, paving the way for the proposal to be on the ballot for state elections in November 2018. The Michigan proposal calls for shifting responsibility for drawing electoral maps from the Michigan Legislature to an independent commission that includes independent private citizens who are not affiliated with political parties.

This proposal aims to take redistricting responsibilities from political parties and giving them to (ideally) nonpartisan private citizens. To implement such goals on a practical level, the proposal suggests:

  • Creating a thirteen-member restricting board. The board would consist of five members who are not affiliated with a political party or are independent, four Republicans, and four Democrats.
  • Choosing the redistricting board members randomly among people who apply for the positions.

The balanced composition of this group would provide equal representation from major parties. It would allow significant input from people who do not affiliate with any party. It would help ensure that one party’s politics does not take precedence over another’s. It would promote inclusiveness and democratic fairness. But, will party politics shape the outcome of this election and the future of the anti-gerrymandering proposal? After all, voters in districts that are already gerrymandered will encounter this ballot proposal. The gerrymandered districts in Michigan largely favor Republicans after the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature redrew electoral maps in 2011 and Republican governor Rick Snyder approved them.

Republicans who want things to remain the way they are would likely vote against the ballot proposal. Gerrymandering, thus, would perpetuate political divisions by working to defeat proposals that fight gerrymandering and political partisanship. It may sound like clichés, but that’s why voting is important and why every vote counts. People might not vote because they assume that certain proposals may pass or that certain candidates may win with or without their votes. But, if they and others don’t vote, they don’t contribute ANY votes to the election. The status quo continues because nothing changes.

But, if enough people vote, their candidates and proposals may win. Even if they don’t win, the large number of votes will illustrate the popularity of these candidates and proposals. The large number of votes can encourage others to take notice, to support such people and causes, and maybe even to run for political offices themselves. Citizens can also use the courts to fight gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear recent cases on gerrymandering. It didn’t issue definitive rulings on it. While it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court will hear further cases on gerrymandering in the near future, it has not issued a final word on the topic. This means that it might hear other gerrymandering cases in the future, especially after the U.S. Census of 2020 might contribute to further political redistricting.

According to Erick Trickey in Politico, it is more likely that individual U.S. states will tackle gerrymandering: “[I]f gerrymandering’s opponents want better, fairer maps, they’ll have to demand them, state by state.” This is happening across the country. In addition to the Michigan Voters Not Politicians initiative, Better Boundaries (Utah) and Clean Missouri are groups demanding an end to gerrymandering. Colorado voters will vote on an anti-gerrymandering proposal in November 2018, while Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved their state legislature’s anti-gerrymandering proposals earlier in 2018.

In a strange way, then, gerrymandering unintentionally encourages the sort of political engagement it’s trying to squelch. Who knew that the Gerrymander could be both a monster and an ally?

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor who has written about a wide variety of topics, including politics, addiction, and gender.

Assisting the Non-Assisted

On Monday, October 1, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based and law organizations, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 1: Focus on Europe. Following, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of UAB Institute for Human Rights, and April Jackson-MacLennan, J.D., from the Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., covered the legal challenges of this phenomenon from an international and national perspective, respectively.

Dr. Reuter Presenting Refugee Statistics. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

The event began with a viewing of the documentary Non Assistance, sponsored by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, which illustrates how sociopolitical crises in the Middle East and North Africa have galvanized thousands of people to flee their home countries, permeating the Mediterranean Sea with frail boats past occupancy, holding limited supplies. Just like its title, the film focused on the lack of assistance refugee boats receive during their treacherous journey, highlighting the tragedy on March 27, 2011 that lead to 63 Tripolitanian refugee fatalities.

Despite endearment from many Europeans citizens, like the vigilantes that aim to rescue whoever they can with their personal boats, many ships in the Mediterranean to do not strive to assist the refugees. However, in 2015 alone, Doctors Without Borders rescued over 23,000 people in the Mediterranean with a just three boats, demonstrating how non-governmental parties can be instrumental in addressing this crisis. One theory for this disparity is, since the first country of contact is responsible for reporting asylum, governments do not want to carry the burden of assisting refugees. Such an outcome begs us to ask: What steps are the European Union (EU) taking to address this issue? How would you feel being lost and abandoned at sea with just the shirt on your back? Where is the humanity?

After the film, Dr. Reuter and Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan fielded questions from the aghast, yet spirited, audience. People wanted to know what can be done; answers centered on policy change and contacting elected officials. Others asked why rescue ships are being held at the ports, leading to discussion about the legal entanglements that now restrict these boats from aiding refugees. Despite there being less rescue boats navigating the Mediterranean and a drop in migration via this route, often attributed to slowing of violence in the Syrian Civil War, there is still a need to assist refugees.

Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan Engaging with a Student. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On November 12, the sequel to this three-part series, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part II: Focus on the United States will be held at Birmingham-Southern College and followed by the third event in early 2019, at Samford University, where action planning around this global issue will take place. Please join us for the following events whereas every voice and helping hand counts.

The Effects of Low-Income Housing on Health

by Emily Walsh

Old Chicago, Southside
Black Community Older Housing On Chicago’s West Side. This Area In 1973 Had Not Quite Recovered From The Riots And Fires During The Mid And Late 1960’s, 06/1973. Source: The US National Archives, Creative Commons

Low Income Housing (LIH) and Public Housing can have serious negative health impacts on those who need these programs the most. Unsafe living environments can be detrimental to residents’ mental and physical health. The people who utilize LIH have often exhausted all other options available to them, and only have risky situations available to them, in the form of LIH. This blog briefly highlights a few of the negative impacts resulting from the interconnection of low income and public housing.

Mobility out of these housing situations is difficult, since the average annual household income for residents of public housing is $14,511, which is well below the federal poverty line. Citizens who live in public housing disproportionately have a disability, of minority ethnicity, and/or receive social security. Whether taken as singular symptoms of a larger problem or in combination, the possibility of relocation decreases tremendously for individuals/families living below the poverty line.

The topic of the efficacy of public and LIH is not a new one. The first federal housing program was created under The U.S. Shipping Act of 1917, which aimed to provide housing for workers needed in industrial positions during World War I. These housing units championed function over comfort and health, which set a dangerous precedent for housing developments to come. Seventeen years later, the National Housing Act of 1934 sought to address housing and mortgage issues during The Great Depression. This act created many of the housing complexes still in use today, especially for lower income communities.

Low-income communities have a number of difficulties associated with them, from financial distress to lower job prospects. However, it is often easy to overlook the impact of the inadequate housing on both the physical and mental health of these populations.

Housing and Cancer

 To keep costs down during the rise of cheap housing due to the National Housing Act of 1934, builders utilized asbestos. Asbestos was a common inclusion in construction materials because of its resistance to flames and chemical reactions, sounds absorption, and low cost. The low cost made asbestos a popular choice for large scale projects like schools, offices, and apartment buildings. Usage of this mineral peaked in the U.S. between 1930 and 1980. Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) become harmful once damaged, which can happen when materials get older, are exposed to weather, or are subjected to demolition or construction.

Undisturbed ACMs pose little threat, but any sort of disruption can have catastrophic consequences because there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. This disruption can be caused by construction, accidents damaging walls, water or fire damage, and general aging over time. Once disturbed, microscopic asbestos fibers are released into the air. At this point they are at risk for inhalation and ingestion by people and animals.

After they enter the body, asbestos fibers settle into the linings of internal organs including the lungs, heart and abdomen. These particles are microscopic, and rubbing against the sensitive tissue of internal organs can cause tiny nodules to form around the fibers. This irritation can cause tumors and mesothelioma cancer to develop. Symptoms such as chest pain, coughing, and fatigue are vague, and easily attributable to a number of other ailments, which makes early diagnosis very difficult.

Exposure at any point can be dangerous and lead to mesothelioma down the road, which can take up to 50 years to appear. Individuals who are worried about mesothelioma should inform their doctor of any of these symptoms, and of any possible asbestos contact. Exposure can occur from housing, construction materials, working on shipyards, working around fire retardant materials, or in mines. After diagnosis and forming a treatment plan with your doctor, you can pursue options in financial compensation if exposed on the job.

Elderly people are most at risk for mesothelioma because they have a higher likelihood of exposure to asbestos at some point in their lives. Exposing them to even more asbestos in the home can exacerbate irritation and lead to further health complications. Sixteen percent (16%) of residents in public housing are seniors, and more than half of those seniors rely on Social Security as their primary source of income. The only safe way to deal with the concern of asbestos is to hire an abatement professional to take care of the situation. However, building owners, and even the government, are not required to do so if they feel any ACMs present are in good enough repair to not be a danger to health.

Many LIH options are still owned by private property owners, which puts the cost of abatement on them. These proprietors may be loath to shell out money to abatement professionals, but they are required to maintain livable conditions on their properties, even if they aren’t specifically mandated to get rid of asbestos. For poorer individuals, the best course of action is to keep an eye around their housing, to see if anything appears to be in disrepair. If it is, they can ask their property owners to have the building tested for dangerous asbestos. If property owners refuse, they can be at risk for lawsuit for not maintaining healthy living standards.

Southside Chicago 1973
South Side Black Community In Chicago With Small Businesses And Apartments Over The Stores In The Older Buildings Near 43rd And Indiana Avenue, 06/1973. Source: The US National Archives, Creative Commons

Impacts of Housing on Wellbeing

From 1954 to 1967, the Chicago Housing Authority built more than 10,000 public housing units. However, only 63 of these were built outside of poor and racially segregated areas. In 1966, community activist Dorothy Gautreaux, along with the support of ACLU lawyers, sued the CHA in federal court. Gautreaux’s case set a precedent that there is a serious difference between urban and suburban housing. The Gautreaux Project refers to an experiment the court set up after Gautreaux won her case. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the CHA to randomize the placement of families with Section 8 housing vouchers. Participants were placed in either suburban or urban neighborhoods regardless of race. After many years, the outcomes of these families were measured against each other.

The families placed in urban situations were more likely to have lower performing children, remain on welfare, and have lower graduation rates than the suburban participants. The Gautreaux project was hailed as definitive proof that a person’s housing situation has a strong correlation with their overall wellbeing. Sociologist James Rosenbaum testified before Congress on the Gautreaux Project’s results, which helped inspire the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program. The MTO emulated the Gautreaux project on a larger scale with 4,600 low-income families in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. The official MTO report found that moving to lower areas of poverty lowered risk of diabetes and obesity for women, proving that concentrated and irresponsible low-income housing is undeniably bad for health and wellbeing.

Mental Health and Housing

 In 2015, the MacArthur Foundation released a report entitled The Link Between Housing, Neighborhood, and Mental Health which identified three linking factors between mental health and living situations. The study used a cross-section of 371 low-income Latino families living in the Bronx, with eligibility determined based on their income. The three factors identified in the report were housing quality, neighborhood cohesion, and policy. They found that poor housing conditions contribute to depression and hostility, but contravened by neighborhood cohesion and improvements to housing.

These issues are interconnected since social cohesion is less present in groups of people experiencing mental health issues, which can then contribute to further mental health issues and spiral out of control. A 2016 study in Britain found similar links between housing and mental health. The research concluded that when exposed to unstable housing conditions for more than a year at a time, children are three times as likely to experience depression and anxiety. Women are also more likely to develop these issues, though at a lower rate of 10 percent.

These connections are apparent, but can be difficult to measure since any mental health issue may have predated the move into low-income housing. Additionally, the effects of an unstable living situation can compound on each other.

Closing Thoughts

No matter the difficulty with which these effects are measured, the importance of responsible housing practices cannot be overstated. The biggest barrier to fixing this problem is the intricacy of the situation. Policy changes, shifts in public opinions, political attention, and development of alternatives can all stand in the way. The results of the studies cited above illustrate steps that could be taken to create a successful model of public housing. As these reports prove, an improvement in housing situations can also result in overall quality of life and contribution to society. By taking these factors into account, populations in need of housing assistance can be provided options for safe and healthy living, at the lower cost that they need.

For residents renting from a privately owned property that exhibits any of the risk factors for decreased health and well-being, you will need to prove that conditions are unlivable. To do this take documents and photographs that support your claim and force landlords to fix them or risk having rent withheld. For residents of public housing, the government is subject to the same rules, and if you are displeased, you can consider the MTO program as an alternative.

 

 October is Healthy Lung Month. Toxins in the home can cause harm to anyone exposed. To avoid these dangerous health risks, educate yourself about how you can avoid exposure, and what your rights are. The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance is dedicated to seeing asbestos eradicated worldwide and ending toxin pollution for people everywhere.