Last Human Rights Day, I wrote a post reflecting on my guilt and frustration of not being able to ‘do’ human rights activism as I had previously done. I was writing that in the process of attempting to return to my academic post after a period of prolonged sick leave. I was not – as I thought then – in the recovery phase.
Indeed, it was a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions informing me I was due to sign on for job seekers allowance if I did not return to work, that really forced me to go back.
As a working class academic, the fear of losing the job that I had clawed my way through luck and work to get to was also all to real.
A year on, I am in a much better place. I am no longer an academic in post. I resigned my full time Lecturer position in May. I’ve been freelance and a small business owner for over 6 months now. In spite of the stresses of starting and growing a small business, I’m happier and healthier than I’ve been in a long time.
Yet, collectively, we are in a much, much worse place.
When I wrote last year, we were still watching the unfolding of Brexit. Bad as it was – and I didn’t mince my words then – we were perhaps not fully aware of just how bad – and how fast – things could get.
We are now on the brink of another General Election amidst a campaign of mind boggling lack of scrutiny of the incumbent party and sources of ‘information’ and bias . We are also witness to the outright callousness from our current Prime Minister. It is a terrifying time for those of us who try to advocate the vital importance of human rights – who care about the collective.
Who intimately understand what social goods are and can do.
I finished my post last year with some optimism. I thought that as a teacher, I was doing important activism; I’d deliberately chosen to teach a human rights option focussing on Social and Economic Human Rights. That squarely tackled their violation in the UK.
As we come through this election campaign, the importance of fighting for our human rights is never more clear. We see the growling dog-whistle of the anti-‘immigrant’ mentality that led us to this Brexit debacle; we see the deliberate devastation caused by ’welfare reform’ – so appalling that the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, called the poverty resulting from austerity as deliberate and systemic. A series of ideological decisions that have escalated and exacerbated the complete violation of human rights – across the spectrum – for many.
This month, Channel 4 aired their Dispatches programme that brought into stark relief the reality of these rights violations. Centring the voices of children and young people living in poverty – the programme clearly revealed not just the theft of rights now – but also the right to a future. As Kerry Hudson has so eloquently put it in The Guardian today – there are some of us who understand intimately the lives of the children who shared their experiences.
I discussed the Dispatches programme with my mum, recalling how we slept in layers in a freezing flat. That as a young girl, I carried the yellow family allowance book, waiting on that post office stamp and cash counted out to do a shop, and then cycled home with bags balanced on the handlebars. Being a young carer when it was needed. That was my normal. That the fear of eviction and power being cut off hung over. That taking a heel end of bread and jam in the bread bag for playpiece was normal. Understanding the loneliness and isolation that poverty brings shaped those early years. And the judgement. A neighbour shouting that ‘the likes of us’ would not disturb them. The problem – a newborn crying. Arguing. No empathy then.
I was born in 1979. Thatcher’s child.
I by no means had it the worst then, and certainly my experience of being a child of a single mother on benefits is nothing in comparison to the cruelty of those trying to survive it now.
I also had the luck and chance to change my life.
As an 18 year old in 1997, I was given just enough access to material support in the form of a grant for university. At just the right times, there were people willing to offer care and interest and encouragement. Those tiny little things that meant I could have a future. An alternative. To be a rights-bearer. To have the opportunity to educate others about their privilege and to guard against how quickly the rights some of us take for granted are dissolved.
I might have been a young girl sleeping in my coat and looking after my parent, but at least I would have the chance as an adult to write a hypothetical letter to my past and say it all got better. I wish I could say the same to the children living in austerity Britain.
That is why on International Human Rights day, we have to pay attention to what is going on in one of the richest – and most unequal – countries in the world.
The tiniest form of human rights activism we can make is to use our vote.
We can speak out – and in – to our families where we can. To our children.
We must make clear what the costs of not making a change are – and will be.
Those handwringing over promises of free broadband, childcare, education – have a word with yourself. These are not a luxuries or optional extras.
These are now a basic part of accessing rights. In an online by default world, we have to grant access.
In the scheme of the enormous wealth we have, these are tiny, but vital things. That make a huge difference.
Like my grant that allowed me to take a place at university – that small investment transformed my life. I paid it back so many times over.
I’m not an academic writing this; I’m a citizen; a mum; a teacher; a woman. I have certain privileges, but I know what life is like without them.
The time to act is now.
Do the smallest thing you can do, is better than nothing.