Dignity for All in Practice: Overcoming Poverty-Based Discrimination

Above: Participants during Dignity for All in Practice: Overcoming Poverty-Based Discrimination

The 60th session of the United Nations Commission for Social Development

From February 7th to 16th, the 60th session of the Commission for Social Development took place in New York at the United Nations headquarters and virtually.

Since the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995, the Commission for Social Development (CSocD) has had the purpose of advising the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on social policies and implementation of the Copenhagen Declaration as well as the Programme of Action, which highlight poverty eradication, decent work, and social integration as main objectives for social development.

From its inception, ATD Fourth World has been involved in the Commission and has been recognized for its expertise in creating and maintaining spaces for dialogue and advocacy, with the participation of people with direct experience of persistent poverty.

This year’s Priority theme resonates particularly with ATD Fourth World’s work: “Inclusive and resilient recovery from COVID-19 for sustainable livelihoods, well-being, and dignity for all: eradicating poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions to achieve the 2030 Agenda.”

Three ATD teams in Ireland, Burkina Faso, and the United States were involved in the preparation of ATD Fourth World’s advocacy to this Commission, contributing directly on what discrimination, poverty, and dignity mean to them. Activists from these three teams designed, facilitated, and participated in an expert workshop organized by ATD Fourth World on the theme: ”Dignity for all in practice: a workshop to understand poverty and well-being through lived experiences’’ on February 1st, in preparation of the Commission. This workshop brought together participants from UN agencies, member states, and NGOs to dialogue with activists with lived experiences of poverty to understand and give a meaning to development through the lens of dignity. The workshop’s report is available here.

CSocD60 side-event: Dignity for All in Practice: Overcoming Poverty-Based Discrimination

On the 11th of February, ATD Fourth World co-organized a side-event, “Dignity for All in Practice: Overcoming Poverty-Based Discrimination,” with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the NGO Committee on Social Development.

The event began with a welcome from moderator Sandra Liebenberg, Professor of human rights law at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

She invited the audience and the speakers to reflect on the implications of viewing poverty through the lens of equality and the right to non-discrimination. This lens broadens our understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty beyond the prevalent “money metric” or even “deprivation of basic social needs” understanding of poverty. Instead, it asks us to consider how poverty is constructed by laws, policies, and institutional practices that collectively exclude people in poverty from full participation in political, economic, social, and cultural life. In doing so, it marginalizes their voices and undermines their human dignity.

Mrs. Liebenberg’s introduction:

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Why prohibit discrimination on the grounds of socio-economic disadvantage/poverty?

Mrs. Liebenberg first gave the floor to Mr. Kelly and Mr. Uzell, who are community activists with ATD Fourth World in Dublin, Ireland. Mr. Kelly explained that he had experienced poverty-based discrimination for his whole life. He shared an example of discrimination he and his wife experienced after the birth of their first child, when the first person to visit them in the hospital was a social worker who made them fear their child would be taken away. Mr. Uzell shared that he has experienced discrimination because of his social situation too, emphasizing how this leads to low self-confidence, shame, stigma, and guilt, and generally takes a heavy toll on someone’s sense of dignity.

Mr. Kelly has been involved in several campaigns for socio-economic discrimination to be added to equality legislation, arguing that “discrimination is a part of the experience of poverty and should be addressed.”

During the difficult months of the pandemic, Mr. Kelly was part of an online creative writing group, which published a set of poems called Lockdown Liberties. Artistic expression was not only a way for Mr. Kelly to break isolation, it was also part of developing the courage to speak up about his experiences and share his knowledge in spaces such as this event.

“Poverty is consistent, and writing sets us free from our prison of the mind.”              Mr. Kelly

Mr. Kelly is confident that the key to implementing inclusive social policy is in building a trusting partnership with people who have lived experiences of poverty to ensure their meaningful participation at every level of the process.

Mr. Kelly and Mr. Uzell presentation:

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After Mr. Kelly and Mr. Uzell’s presentation, the moderator turned to Mr. Gouba Ousseini, who is a community activist and member of the ATD Fourth World national team in Burkina Faso.

Mr. Ousseini explained that, to him, every person is inherently valuable and deserves respect.

“To build a peaceful world, we need every person’s participation.”

Mr. Ousseini

However, society does not consider every person’s worth and dignity. Mr. Ousseini himself has experienced a lot of discrimination based on his social status. He told stories of being mistreated when trying to obtain civil registration documents such as birth certificates, and of being denied access to health treatments. These barriers to accessing legal and health services have concrete and nefarious effects on people’s lives.

“If you live in poverty and you don’t have friends, your life is treated as if it had no value, no meaning. Your life is in danger.”

Mr. Ousseini

What are the implications of prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of socio-economic status?

The next speaker was the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Mr. Olivier De Schutter. To address the above question, Mr. De Schutter emphasized that people with the experience of poverty live in a vicious cycle of powerlessness, stigmatization, discrimination, exclusion, and material deprivation, which all mutually reinforce one another. To overcome this cycle, Mr. De Schutter argued that we need to address both direct and indirect poverty-based discrimination, while also ensuring decent housing, adequate nutrition, healthcare, strong social protection, and robust minimum wage legislation.

Many of our societies are based on meritocracy, which inherently disadvantages people who already have a lower socioeconomic status. According to Mr. De Schutter, it is essential that we move “from societies that see social exclusion as an inevitable price to pay for competitiveness to inclusive societies that value and cherish diversity.”

Mr. De Schutter concluded that affirmative action policies must be adopted in order to overcome systemic discrimination against people in poverty.

Mr. De Schutter’s presentation:

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What can we learn from country-level experiences?

Mrs. Liebenberg then gave the floor to Mrs. Diane Roman, jurist, and Professor of public law at the Sorbonne Law School. Mrs. Roman explained that in 2016 the French Parliament adopted a law aimed at combating discrimination on the grounds of socioeconomic status.

When the law was passed, a French member of Parliament said, “Poverty is already a trial. It does not have to be accompanied by humiliation, stigmatization, and rejection. To include the criterion of discrimination on the basis of economic vulnerability in the law today is to give back to the excluded a part of their dignity, to affirm that they have rights and that they do not have to be ashamed of themselves.”

According to Mrs. Roman, more than five years after the 2016 law came into force, two difficulties remain. First, the law’s aim is to fight certain behaviors and decisions that cause stigmatization and exclusion, but it is not a major tool for political and social transformation. Second, the law remains little used by victims. In 2019, less than 2% of the complaints addressed to the Défenseur des droits (the French Ombudsman) raised this discrimination criterion. Moreover, to date, no litigation has been successful and French courts have never issued a decision recognizing discrimination based on socioeconomic vulnerability. There are a few possible explanations for this weak implementation of the law. First, the law is not well known. More important, socially and economically vulnerable people do not have sufficient cultural and social resources to take legal action. And when they do, it is very difficult to establish proof of discrimination.

Mrs. Roman concluded: “The French example is revealing: prohibiting discrimination on the basis of poverty is a strong political symbol, which makes it possible to affirm the equal dignity of all persons, regardless of their income and social status. But it is not a sufficient measure. It must be accompanied by a resolute policy of implementing economic and social rights in all areas (employment, housing, health, justice, education, family and child protection, etc.). It must also be accompanied by a strong mobilization to guarantee effective access to these rights for all.”

The last speaker was H.E. Ambassador Mr. Frank Tressler, Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations Office in Geneva. Ambassador Tressler presented the 2012 Anti-Discrimination Law adopted in Chile, a milestone that recognizes the right to legal protection from arbitrary discrimination and establishes a judicial procedure to address acts of arbitrary discrimination for reasons such as socioeconomic condition, race, ethnicity, or nationality, among others.

The law is accompanied by a network of social protection policies to overcome poverty, through which social protection floors and access to benefits are ensured to the most vulnerable populations. Ambassador Tressler gave examples of different Chilean social protection system programs: supportive programs for families and children up to nine years of age that ensure universal prenatal care and birth assistance; access to health, education, and general welfare services for minors; and programs of comprehensive care for dependent people, their caregivers, and their families.

Ambassador Tressler also drew the attention of the audience to the links between vulnerability and the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Specific emergency measures were adopted, such as distribution of economic aid, vaccination plans, etc. to support the most vulnerable people.

Mr. Tressler concluded his presentation by highlighting the importance of civil society representatives’ participation in international institutions such as the United Nations.

Dialogue with the audience

During the discussion, several topics were discussed by the speakers to address numerous questions from the audience.

Mr. Kelly and Mr. Uzell explained how they felt discrimination in employment and mental health services during the lockdown. For Mr. Ousseini, there is a major gap between the laws and how they actually benefit people in poverty.

Mr. Olivier De Schutter highlighted the difference between horizontal inequalities (inequality among groups, typically culturally defined, by ethnicity, religion, or race) and vertical inequalities (inequality among individuals or households), and emphasized the need to work on vertical inequalities to address prejudices against people in poverty.

Ambassador Tressler addressed a question about the barriers for people in poverty to accessing social services (digital barriers, paperwork, etc.), especially in rural areas and areas welcoming migrants.

“We have to treat the question of non-take-up of rights as indirect discrimination. One of the major reasons why people do not claim the benefits they normally should have a right to obtain is because of stigmatization, because they feel ashamed. And this is a result of the discourse that blames poverty on people living in poverty themselves and makes them responsible for their own situation.”

Olivier De Schutter

Mrs. Sandra Liebenberg concluded the event with a South African example of legislation prohibiting discrimination and cases of multidimensional discriminatory practices based on several grounds: race, gender, and socio-economic disadvantage.

Watch the whole event:

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