Choma Children Development Project coordinator Cornwell Hademu says “poverty has silenced many critical voices, especially among the womenfolk even when they have solutions that might be instrumental to the development of the nation thereby creating space for the rich to dominate society”.
“Wealth gives power while poverty takes away people’s knowledge and freedom,” says Hademu. “Poverty is painful and as women, you need to up your game so that we defeat this poverty and reclaim your voice in society.” We agree.
Poverty can restrict your access to basic human rights. This is neither a controversial nor revolutionary statement — it is clear that access to food and shelter is diminished by poverty. But poverty also blocks the less tangible rights many of us nonetheless take for granted, among them, the right to freedom of expression.
Poverty can be a very powerful barrier to accessing the abilities and tools to communicate your interests, ideas and needs, and as such, your rights to fully participate in society. This lack of access to freedom of expression manifests itself in a number of different areas, including in education, online and in the arts.
Poverty remains the biggest block to access to education, with young people from the poorest households globally being three times as likely to be out of school compared to the richest households. Direct costs connected to education, such as tuition fees, school materials, uniforms and transportation can constitute huge barriers to education. In addition to this, many poor people live in rural areas with fewer schools. For poor families there can also be significant opportunity costs connected to sending children to school rather than work. Among other things, this explains the higher levels of illiteracy among the poor. The damaging effect illiteracy has on your ability to express yourself, and subsequently fully participate in civil society, cannot be overstated. If you can’t read newspapers, write to your politicians or even fill out the necessary forms to apply for an NRC and documents to vote, your voice is severely limited. This is without even considering the many costs connected to the above.
But poverty doesn’t only block participation offline. The internet, mobile phones and other modern communication tools provide some of the biggest potential platforms to freedom of expression. New technology can be used to take part in debates, organise large-scale campaigns, monitor elections and hold those in power to account. However, the gap between rich and poor in this sector is big enough to warrant its own term — the digital divide.
Less has been said about access to artistic freedom of expression among poor people in development terms.
Access to culture and arts is a significant factor in combating poverty. Cultural activities can be instrumental in helping people overcome poverty and social exclusion, through building skills and self-confidence and enhancing self-esteem and identity.
Groups like the long-term unemployed and poor families are often excluded from access to and participation in arts and cultural activities. Barriers include basic costs, as well as the daily struggle of surviving leaving little spare time to participate in cultural activities.
Poverty often means that you generally have fewer channels through which to communicate your interests on national or even local levels. While lack of freedom of expression is a violation of human rights in itself, this inability to raise your voice and speak for yourself can have devastating spill-over effects. Challenges of poverty alleviation must be designed and implemented with active participation of the communities in question. How can the programmes meant to help the poor hope to effectively do that, if the poor themselves do not have a say in them? The lack of participation in policies that affect them and their communities means poor people are made vulnerable to misguided policy-making. Lack of participation in decision-making is thus a defining feature and cause of poverty, rather than just its consequence. The outcome is that the people with potentially the most to gain from freedom of expression are the ones who lack the access to it.