Civil Society Mobilization Indispensable for Inclusive Cities – The Perspective of a Grassroots Activist

By on 04/29/2015

Maureen Bahati08 July 2015, Nairobi. Maureen Bahati is working for GROOTS Kenya (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood) – a network of more than 2000 self-help groups from poor communities in urban slums and rural areas across Kenya. As an appreciated panelist to the Governing Council side event on human rights in cities and cities for all, she here shares her view-on the importance of civil society and human rights in urban development.

UN-Habitat has a long standing mandate on the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing. How is GROOTS Kenya engaging on housing rights?
From our perspective, the right to adequate housing entails the very important component of capacity building. GROOTS Kenya has for a long time worked on how to engage civil society in the urban context. Capacity building is of fundamental importance and to strengthen right-holders demands for rights. Only when right-holders know their entitlements can we working progressively with the different rights. GROOTS has for example organized communities in informal settlements to map out the settlement, establish inhabitant records and data collection on important facts of the area, so as to be able to argue for and claim their rights. This is one way that we have strengthened communities so that they can claim security of tenure, which is one of the components of the internationally recognized right to adequate housing.

As a representative for civil society, could you share your views on the human rights principle of participation in your work with grassroots organizations?
As mentioned above, empowerment of right-holders is one way of ensuring meaningful participation and sustainable results. Human rights entail inclusiveness that no one is left behind in decision-making. For example, we tend to forget people living in rural areas and the reasons to why they migrate to cities. Only from participation, discussions and consultations with the people that are affected can we come up with well-informed and sustainable urban solutions. We need to draw lessons from people’s experiences and lives, and civil society and grassroots organizations play a vital role here. We need to understand people’s aspirations, how to engage and how to give the most marginalized a strong voice.

What do you think about the relationship between development and human rights?
Well clearly, development done in the right way can be pivotal in the maintenance of human rights. But sadly, all too often we see development prioritized over human rights. For example, large-scale infrastructure certainly provides jobs and can boost the national economy, but this often involves the forced eviction of those living in slums. In my work, I often see the priorities of men trumping women, as men generally provide the financial resources for the family. This results in a clear lack of equality between the sexes and is what we work hard to combat.

You mentioned your work in Gender, how does this relate to human rights?
The core principles of human rights are that they are universal and inalienable. This means that they apply to everyone, simply because we are all human. Clearly this cannot rule out half of the global population – the female half. Another core principle is that human rights are indivisible – one human right is not more important than another, nor are the human rights of one person more important than the human rights of another. Again, we can see how this related to equal opportunity for men and women alike. Furthermore, women’s rights are actually enshrined in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This is one of the most ratified and oldest international conventions and legally obligates signatory states to respect women’s rights.

How do Women’s Rights relate to the work of UN-Habitat?
UN-Habitat primarily works with urbanization issues. Urbanization has fantastic potential to improve human rights, but also poses a great risk of violation of rights. As I mentioned, forced evictions signify a gross violation of human rights. In traditional cultures, if a man dies, his family often assume the land, leaving his widow and children homeless. This is one of the most common issues we see. As a prominent agency working in sustainable urbanization, UN-Habitat must continue to work towards the goals of equal opportunity for women and men alike.


Find out more on UN-Habitat and Human Rights here

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