First Person: The struggle to protect human rights in East Africa during the pandemic

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in East Africa, the UN Human Rights regional office, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has been contributing to the COVID-19 response of UN country teams in the region, by ensuring that human rights protection for vulnerable people is included in their plans. The head of the office, Nwanneakolam Vwede-Obahor, shared some of the challenges she and her colleagues are facing.

“These have been trying times for all of us on different levels, almost like a seismic change in the direction of our work, but we made the decision not to forget everything else, even as we focus on COVID-19.

Our work includes providing technical advice, and input to response plans, humanitarian appeals, development plans, as well as socio-economic analyses of the impact of COVID-19, in coordination with other offices UN in East Africa.

We provide advice for the prevention of stigmatization and discrimination, particularly in relation to healthcare access and testing for those suspected of having symptoms of COVID-19, and we organize webinars with human rights defenders – including women human rights defenders – on the impact of the pandemic on their work, and on self-care.

And we are monitoring state of emergency declarations in the East Africa region, to ensure that they do not infringe on rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of association and of speech, the right to life, the right to highest attainable standard of health, and the right to education.

I have been telling myself that this pandemic reminds me of the saying, «Man plans and God laughs»: we will keep on planning, but we need to be agile. We have had to pivot immediately, to be able to respond to the needs of the people we serve.

The work we have all been doing on socio-economic analysis has opened my eyes to how much more we need, particularly in Africa, to get civil society organizations to look at the wider picture of rights: most organizations only focus on civil and political rights, which is vital, but there is a place for these organizations, and national human rights institutions to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights as well.

Once this pandemic started, it exacerbated all of the issues we had pointed out before it began, such as poverty, the lack of access to quality education, and the lack of access to health services. But it has also helped to confirm why the UN is here: to show Governments how to do better for those who could possibly fall through the cracks.

More data, for improved protection

The UN has a standard idea of vulnerability: women, children, internally displaced persons, migrants, refugees and the elderly. However, even for the elderly, we do not have data in Africa. For a long time, we have been pushing issues of persons with disability, but I have yet to see a proper analysis of disability data in Africa either, and there are groups of people on whom we never capture data in Africa, such as the homeless.

We do not have distinct categorizations on the urban poor either, even though the very people I have listed are the ones most prone to COVID-19 infection, because of their living conditions. We need to widen our definition of vulnerability, and produce more inclusive data.

I cannot think of a better example than this pandemic, to show us why it is important to stand up for everyone’s rights. And we have to work towards ending the pandemic as a collective: if we don’t, it is more likely that it will happen again”.

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