…is a human right is a series exploring how the fight for women’s rights is a fight for human rights. By analyzing and referencing the concept of “human rights” through a gender-specific lens, we do the ultimate service to the movement: we make the humanity of women inescapable and stress the intersectionality of the human race’s various needs.
In a small triangle of benches a few blocks from where I live in Washington, DC, a group of older black men, seemingly long-time community members, used to sit, talk and play cards during the day. I heard them laughing every time I walked by to go to one of the many new businesses nearby. A few weeks ago, I noticed someone had put up high chain link fences around the triangle almost overnight, trapping the empty benches inside. Construction workers have been building a fancy new apartment complex for high-income young professionals next door, so maybe the developers finally decided they wanted those men gone.
Now every time I walk by, instead of hearing laughing, I can’t help but think – where do those men go now? Why did someone have the right to kick these people out of their meeting ground? I think about who controls space, and therefore land and environment, and the effects of this control on those most vulnerable – namely low-income people, people of color, indigenous people, and women.
Who has the right to space – or even the right to exist? Kiribati, a small island nation in the Pacific and one of the world’s poorest countries, is slowly drowning because of the rising seas of climate change caused by wealthy polluting countries like the U.S – trickle down climate change, if you will.
Who has the right to a sustainable, healthy environment? In the United States, low-income people are disproportionately affected by environmental toxins. They are the rural poor whose water is polluted by pesticides and fracking giants, whose bayous are being sucked into sinkholes, and whose homes may be part of Cancer Alley. They are the urban poor living near corporations’ toxic waste dumps on the edges of cities and having children who will struggle with asthma, possibly caused by pollution. “By permitting toxic and hazardous facilities to operate in close proximity to people of color and poor communities, the U.S. government prioritizes the economic interests of polluting industries above the protection of the fundamental human rights to life, health, racial equality, and security of one’s home,” writes Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.
Who has the right to clean water? In Canada right now, First Nations people are fighting against fracking on their tribal lands to prevent “poisoning ground water, destroying wildlife and making vast tracks of land uninhabitable.” In countries across Latin America, indigenous people have had to fight against the privatization of water to make sure they have the most basic human right to water, one that was adopted by the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 2002.
These questions highlight the extreme disparities between classes and races in access to clean water, air and sustainable environments. Gender comes more into play as well after large-scale natural disasters or man-made conflicts. Women are much more susceptible to sexual violence and labor and sex trafficking, and their immediate needs in disaster situations are not addressed as quickly as men’s, whether those are needs for maternal health care or for safe spaces.
The effects of environmental racism and ignoring women’s needs come at a significant cost to society. According to two UN reports released in November, women’s right to land is directly linked to food security, sustainable development, economic empowerment, and protection against HIV/AIDS; and ensuring women’s access to and control of land and other natural resources can improve prospects for long-term peace in war-torn countries.
All of these environmental injustices only skim the surface of the intersecting injustices that happen around the world every day. The right to a safe, healthy, equal, sustainable environment is a right that is violated all over the world for those who are left most vulnerable by oppression and a lack of access to wealth or power.
Many incredible organizations and people are fighting tooth and nail to make environmental justice – the “intersection of human rights, infrastructure and how people–rich and poor, living in rich or developing countries–equitably and sustainably access the resources and things they need to survive and prosper” – a reality. This week, while we call for more attention to human rights, let’s join them and do more about environmental justice for people here in the U.S. and around the world.
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