19.9.13

Roads for the rich


I had the opportunity yesterday to listen to an excellent array of speakers at a seminar “Promoting Human Rights – Human Rights Defenders as Actors of Social Change” hosted by KIOS the Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights.

Out of the themes of the day, the point that resonated the most with me was from Hina Jilani, a distinguished human rights defender from Pakistan, who spoke about the phenomenon of increasing conservatism of institutions.

Specifically on justice systems she said, “courts of law have become courts of morality.”

She told of her own experiences with the courts in Pakistan where judges and magistrates were shocked to be told that it was unlawful to justify the forcible incarceration of women in shelters in order to prevent the immorality that a free woman would undoubtedly cause.

“How far have our courts progressed beyond the prejudices and restraints, and constraints of social attitudes…?” Ms Jilani asked.

Not far it seems.

Currently pending in Zambia are the trials of Paul Kasonkomona and of two young men in Kapiri Mposhi for immorality, that is, for crimes that do not exist in Zambia law but for acts that offend the certain segments of society and therefore must somehow be punished. Zambia also had the case of Iris Kaingu, found guilty for the intent to corrupt morals – for filming herself and her boyfriend having consensual sex.

In the US, it seems the courts and other political and social institutions have been unable to shake themselves free of the prevailing sentiments regarding a woman’s right to choose, her right to her own body – and with ever increasing violence and fervour are rolling back rights that have already been established.

This conservatism of institutions is not limited to courts, Ms Jilani also spoke of how social services go undelivered because, as she put it “some categories of society have an agenda.”

Here we can include organisations, state and non-state, that are responsible for countless numbers of young people being denied access to birth control and other sexual and reproductive health services based on their own attitudes towards extra marital sex and disregarding the consequences of their actions and attitudes.

A perhaps stranger example is from my own experience “roads for the rich” -  roads built without facilities for pedestrians because as the planners put it “poor people don’t own cars,” and thus have no use for roads.

It could be suggested that these opinions and belief systems are justified because the individuals are a product of their environment. We all to a certain extent believe and act as the people that surround us do.

However this defence is baseless. From the same societies that create these conservative, morality-focused individuals and institutions arise the human rights defenders that oppose them. The same society that plans to convict Paul Kasonkamona is the one that gave birth to and nurtured him. The same applies to the women who seek birth control and the nurses and doctors that deny it to them. The same society that gave us the man on the bicycle laden with two sacks of charcoal trying not to be mowed down as he negotiates a half metre space between speeding cars and man-high elephant grass also gave us the banker cruising along in his Chevrolet double cab, windows closed and air-conditioning on - and that same society fortunately gave us the local authority employees that realised their mistake and vowed to change it.

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