Examining poverty as a human rights violation

Written by Barb Davies, Learning & Leadership Coordinator at Thrive

Rights give a language that can be used to gain power. They empower those most marginalized. This is the purpose of human rights.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights provide accountability to enforce human rights globally. To be effective, all levels of civil society including government, institutions, non-profits and business have a responsibility to ensure rights are upheld.

This was the subject matter covered in Human Rights and Poverty, a week-long module from the Canadian Poverty Institute’s KNOW Poverty summer program offered through Ambrose University. The module explored the universality of human rights, anchored in the basic human right of dignity bestowed to all people.

Root causes of poverty often relate back to a violation of human rights. Violence, trauma, lack of education, racism, accessibility of health care all impact an individual’s ability to participate fully in community. Poverty is the result of a failure to realize human rights, more so than a lack of income or financial insecurity.

Ultimately, poverty is a violation of human rights. A rights-based approach to poverty reduction requires a shift in power dynamic from a charitable, top-down model, to an empowerment, bottom-up model.

Poverty framed as a human rights violation provides a framework for addressing poverty as an issue of justice. A founding principle of a rights-based approach is that human rights are universal. They apply to all people. Everyone has the opportunity to claim their rights and to advocate for other’s rights. Central to a rights-based approach is the involvement of those affected to be part of the solution.

Derek Cook, course lead and Executive Director of the Canadian Poverty Institute, shared a story about a discussion he had with a small group of residents at the Mustard Seed about what poverty means for someone living on the street. He expected most people to talk about access to food, shelter, water. Surprisingly, the overarching theme from the discussion was their right to respect and dignity that is so often denied.

During my undergrad degree, I had learned about human rights in the context of international development. Examples of human rights violations in developing countries, such as injustice faced by women and children, crippling working conditions, genocide and war crimes, are all too common. But, what about in our own backyards? The right to food, adequate shelter, dignity, and community are often denied to those living in homelessness or marginalized conditions.

A common theme over the course of the week was ‘humanity.’ What simple actions can each one of us take to empathize and open ourselves to another perspective? How do we reclaim community and peer into our own backyards to offer compassion to another human’s suffering?

A rights-based approach can be applied in many areas including grassroots community development to advocacy for policies that create a more just society for all.

For myself, this course helped localize my understanding of human rights violations and the responsibility that each of us have to make a stand for human rights regardless of our differences.

We are stronger united.

Take Action:

  1. Click here to learn more about the Poverty Institute.
  2. Ambrose University offers a Poverty Studies program. Click here to find out more.
  3. Connect with your fellow humans by volunteering with organizations such as the Drop In Centre, The Alex, or the Mustard Seed.