October 17th was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. However, a one-day a year acknowledgement doesn’t suffice. The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights, a book by Irene Khan, advocates for awareness about what she sees as the indisputable link between the title’s two components. Khan states flatly, “Poverty is the world’s worst human rights crisis.”
As the first woman, Muslim, and Asian to take over the reins of leadership as Amnesty International Secretary General (2001–2009), Khan has plenty of accolades and on-the-ground experience. She spent twenty years at the United Nations as the High Commissioner for Refugees, is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and was named as one of the 100 Most Influential Asians in the United Kingdom.
The book features a foreword by Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997–2006) who speaks to the plight of approximately 3 million people who live in poverty and “are unable to meet their daily needs for adequate shelter, food, health care, clean water, or education for their children.” Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human rights (1997–2002) writes in a blurb, “Poverty is the world’s worst human rights crisis and this book make a powerful statement about not only why but how we can turn the tide.”
Khan’s contention is that poverty is a human rights issue, and therefore defending those rights must be at the core of efforts to end poverty. Recognized human rights abuses include “discrimination, state repression, corruption, insecurity, and violence.”
In ten chapters Khan breaks down issues ranging from “The Right to Safe Motherhood” to employing the path of “legal empowerment to end poverty.” Disenfranchised groups including the Roma communities of Europe, indigenous populations, and women are pointed to by Khan as those whose concerns are ignored by governmental authorities.
Khan qualifies this marginalization as being based on gender, race, language, and caste. A United Nations sponsored commission found that tens of millions of people lacked a legal identity. Khan believes that the state fails poor people, and maintains that they are affected in far greater numbers by police brutality and corruption, in the courts and educational system, and through gender violence.
Referencing an example of the latter, she examines the plight of the women of cuidad Juárez, who gravitate to the urban setting of factory life to escape the crushing poverty of their rural environs. Hundreds of young women have been raped and murdered while returning from their jobs or night school. Despite their economic contributions, as women of limited financial means they have no power or political capital. Therefore, no substantial police work was done on their deaths and disappearances.
The figures on world poverty are daunting. Currently, over 1 billion people inhabit slums. In 2030, this number will double. Khan quotes the World Bank assertion that those earning under two dollars per day are considered “poor,” and those earning less than $1.25 per day are in “extreme poverty.” Based on those statistics, 2 billion people are poor and 1 billion people live in extreme poverty.
Throughout the book Khan addresses the disconnect between the mind-set of numerous economists and the human rights point of view. She does not believe that material benefits equate to political power, nor does she recognize economic growth, as a response to poverty, as the magic bullet. She quotes Nobel Peace Prize recipient (2000) Professor Muhammad Yunus who states, “Because poverty denies people any semblance of control over their destiny, it is the ultimate denial of human rights.” Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and economist, developed microcredit as a vehicle to empower the poor.
Khan emphasizes that economic solutions alone cannot end poverty. By way of example she explains, “Building new schools doesn’t guarantee that girls will have the same access to education as boys.” With access to food, shelter, clean water, health care, and education being defined as basic human rights, working to defend these rights will expedite the fight to end poverty. Khan illustrates the societal structure as a pyramid. It starts at the bottom with an individual’s domestic situation and builds upwards to community, employer, and then to government. Khan points to legal empowerment and defines how laws that are supposed to protect can in fact be a “source of oppression.”
The book ties in with Amnesty International’s global campaign, “Demand Dignity,” which calls for ending the human rights violations that “drive and deepen poverty.” The Demand Dignity initiative was launched in June 2009 in the slums of Kenya, with the goal of ending forced evictions. Three months later, it focused on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone.
Khan is a champion of women’s rights, and is consistently sensitive to a gender perspective. She includes a full chapter on maternal mortality, seeing it not solely as a health problem, but reframing it as ”reflecting the powerlessness of women.” She notes that violence against women is central to the experience of poverty.
Fittingly, Khan dedicates her book to the women of Bangladesh “whose courageous struggle for equality and dignity inspires, encourages, and energizes me.”