Why your new neighborhood is violating other people’s rights

The right to housing is one of the most fundamental rights, and yet it’s no secret that millions of people around the world are going without. While commonly thought of as a developing world problem, the UN Human Rights Commission estimated in 2005 that 100 million people across the world were homeless, meaning that the problem is not isolated to just deep, dark Africa.

The right to housing is articulated in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which states in article 11 that everyone has the right to “an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

I’m not even going to touch the androcentric nature of this, and most of the international human rights instruments whose drafters seemed to believe that the inclusion of half of the world’s population was unnecessary.

In modern and urbanized cities like London, Cape Town, New York, gentrification is receiving increased attention, and it has serious implications for working class people who are forcibly displaced from their homes due to their inability to keep up with dramatic hikes in rent.

Joel and Aaron Israel, brothers and landlords in Brooklyn, are alleged to have let their property go into disrepair in an effort to force out their current tenants and dramatically increase rent prices.

While it’s unrealistic to expect that neighbourhoods never evolve, or that rent prices will never increase, the actions of these brothers clearly reflects a lack of respect for the right to adequate “housing…. And to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” The people in this building, and those worldwide who are subjected to forcible relocation as a result of gentrifying trends need to be protected. Whether that is through inclusionary zoning or the provision of council housing, states worldwide have a responsibility to make sure that no one is forced to stay in inadequate living conditions.


Marry who you want, and marry who you like

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Along with other fundamental rights, such as “the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Art 3) and “freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” (Art 13); the UDHR also states that “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution,” and that these marriages “shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses” (Art 16).

It’s an age-old phenomenon for people, especially young women and girls, to be forced into marriage against their will. In some cases, they are forced or coerced by their parents. In other instances, skewed ratios of women to men thanks to gender-selective abortion, mean that young girls and women are kidnapped, forced into marriage, and subjected to physical and sexual assault.
While usually associated with, but not limited to developing countries, forced marriage takes place all over the world, including in the United States and the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, family members rejecting their children’s choice in partners is not an uncommon occurrence. Al-Jazeera reports that a man in India, Sidhnath Sharma, is suing his son, Sushant Jasu, for marrying a woman of a lower social class, saying that “For ages, it has been an accepted tradition of arranged marriages within your own caste,” and that his son choosing to eschew tradition “not only stunned [him], it also affected [his] social status.”

Full and free consent means being able to not marry, or marry whomever you choose. As Jasu’s mother states, “If my son is happy with his marriage, I should openly back him. Time has changed now, one should understand it.”

Survival isn’t …

Survival isn’t about certain death. It’s about keeping your head down.

12 Years a Slave

I just watched 12 Years a Slave over the weekend. This quote, and the whole film, really, reminded me of a conversation I had last year with one of my professors. We spoke at length about groups being complicit in their oppression. Women, racial minorities, indigenous people, and religious minorities, are all “guilty” of complying with their oppressors.

We talked at length about female genital mutilation (FGM), which the WHO estimates that between 100 and 140 million worldwide have undergone. While feminist discourse describes such a practice as being patriarchal, it is carried out and controlled by women.

A 2013 study published by BMC Public Health found that in The Gambia, both women and men defend FGM by arguing that “it is critical to preserve ethnic and gender identity, protect femininity, ensure purity and virginity, guarantee the ‘family’s honour,’ assure marriageability…” That such attitudes are held by women about a practice that is physically harmful shows just how important “keeping your head down” is to survival.

While the pressure to comply with oppressive norms is understandable- after all, it’s the instinct of every species to do what it takes to survive- it is not without rocking the boat that any social change is achieved.

The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century took place as a result of the proletariat’s discontentment with “keeping their heads down,” especially after Enlightenment thinkers ideas about personal freedom gained exposure.

Although there are countless example in human history of revolution and social movements, skipping ahead roughly two centuries, the United States’ 1960’s civil rights movement is another example of human beings no longer content to silently comply with legislation and social norms designed to keep minorities, in this case racial minorities, as second-class citizens.

Even more recently, the Arab Spring, set off by Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolating in Tunisia started off a chain of revolution throughout the region by those no longer willing tolerate human rights abuses at the hands of their oppressive leaders .

While I’m not arguing that all of these social movements have been raging successes- the human rights situation throughout much of the Middle East is still precarious, and racial discrimination still exists in the United States- their occurrences indicate that a life of silently complying is not enough. Keeping your head down is merely a means to survive. Social change is about creating a way to thrive.