It is by design that International Human Rights Day brings to a close the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, which commenced on 25 November. Human rights violations are experienced by people from all walks of life, but women and children are often the most vulnerable of any community and it follows that the violence they endure is a special kind and deserving of special attention. South Africa is no exception in this regard. The statistics concerning violence against women are common knowledge with, for example, the femicide rates in the country being reportedly five times the global average. The statistics concerning children are equally shocking, with over six million children in South Africa living below the food poverty line. As the nation joins the world in commemoration of one of the most important international agreements in existence, reflection is necessary.

South Africa’s Constitution is one of, if not the world’s most progressive constitution, with clearly-articulated human rights provisions in the Bill of Rights. Ironically, the country simultaneously holds the world’s title for the most unequal society. This inequality is often articulated in economic terms viaregularly-published poverty statistics. This poverty translates to the poor and often impossible access to basic and fundamental human rights. Poverty means that for many, there is limited or no access to safe water and sanitation. It follows then that the health of those affected by the lack of safe water, is at risk. However, access to basic healthcare is also restricted by poverty. Poor access to healthcare is further compounded by the high cost of living, effectively limiting healthy food choices for the less privileged. 

An environment that is not harmful to the health or wellbeing of its inhabitants is protected by the Constitution, yet there are communities in South Africa today whose daily lives revolve around free-flowing sewage in residential areas and at schools. The issue of access to sanitation features here as women and children’s security is put at risk when ablution facilities are located far from homes and classrooms. There have been horrendous reports of women who have been raped and killed en route to and from communal bathrooms, and young children who have drowned in unsafe pit latrine toilets in public schools. Such substandard facilities are located in only the poorest of areas, effectively stripping the most vulnerable of our society of their inalienable rights to human dignity and equality, which are protected by the UDHR and the Constitution. 

When countries attempt to fulfil their domestic and international human rights obligations, particularly where State resources are needed to execute such duties, any failure is articulated in relation to that particular – often socio-economic – right. The UDHR mentions “equality” and “dignity” and “inalienable”, but what it also does by implication, is tie all the other rights, inextricably, to the dignity and equality of all its subjects. By lifting the rights in the UDHR and expanding on them to fit South Africa’s context, this country does the same. Where a vulnerable person living in South Africa has their rights to dignity and equality assailed by the failure of the State to direct the proceeds of its economic endeavours their way, there is a problem. 

There is a wealth of activism in South Africa, which calls for innovative ways to guarantee the fair, non-discriminatory access to human rights. In truth, there is one way by which the State can ensure that nobody is left behind: concerted, visible, transparent redirection of funds used for wasteful and fruitless expenditure to the fulfilment of human rights. The bottom line is that if there is no economic effort put into ensuring the equal access of human rights – not barred by race, sex, social origin – there will forever be a gaping margin between those who have, and those who will remain vulnerable from generation to generation. South Africa must join the global community in recommitting to actively eradicating poverty and inequality, so that the barriers that stand between the most vulnerable of society and their inherent human dignity, eventually disappear. 

By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights
10 December 2018