Thoughts on Human Rights Day

South Africans are celebrating Human Rights Day today. Yes, we are weird this way. We celebrate human rights in March, the rest of the world does it in December. But don’t worry, we celebrate Women’s Day in August, whereas everyone else does it in March. So it all makes sense. If you think really hard.

There is actually a logic to this. We do feel connected to the greater world out there, but we also want to assert our individuality and honour our own history. Therefore we celebrate Women’s Day in line with the rest of the world, but celebrate it in August as that was when a group of women marched on Pretoria as a major anti apartheid protest. In the same vein, we South African’s want to celebrate human rights, but we do so by commemorating the Sharpeville Massacre which took place in Sharpeville in 1960. Right, now with that out of the way I can get on to the point of today’s blog post…

Last Friday I was driving on the M1 motorway (a ‘double-decker’ motorway that takes traffic around the city centre of Johannesburg), one of Africa’s great roads. I was with a colleague and we were talking about business and other ‘important’ issues. I was in the second from left lane (we drive on the left hand side) and traveling in a southerly direction. I suddenly saw a person walking on the road towards me, in the extreme left hand lane. This was a bit of a shock as there is no pedestrian walkway/pavement and they were effectively walking on the roadway. I was concerned for their safety, but could do nothing about it.

As we got closer to one another I took a closer look at the person and I was literally struck speechless as my heart broke in my chest. The person was quite obviously not in a good way. They were wearing a green, lycra mini skirt, no shoes and a black bra. That is it. Nothing else. The bra was pulled to the side exposing the left breast and nipple. It was clear that the person’s chest was, shall we say, not anatomically ‘female’. In other words it was quite obvious to me that this was a transgender person, in considerable distress, walking on the highway… and I could do nothing about it. We were already late for a very important meeting. I had no way of stopping without endangering the safety of my passenger, other road users and indeed the person I was trying to help and even if I did stop, what could I do? I realised I had no way of offering practical assistance to this person. They needed clothing, food, shelter, (probably) medical care and who knows what else…

Today being Human Rights Day I am reminded of this person. We often decry the fact that our human rights are being infringed. We complain when we are excluded from the property market, we throw our hands up in despair when legislators seek to stop us using public restrooms and we rage about being excluded from medical care when gatekeepers prevent us from getting hormones and other treatments.

Now these are all legitimate concerns. They (and other issues) are serious concerns with far reaching consequences. They are also often the thin end of the wedge. If gatekeepers prevent us from accessing hormones, they can also deny us access to primary medical care and of course transgender people do find themselves discriminated against in all sorts of medical situations, similarly if discriminatory legislation in respect of public toilets is passed, it may be easier to get other prejudicial legislation in place and for prejudiced people to be able to justify discrimination against us in the housing, job and other markets. I appreciate and understand this. I am not saying these are not serious issues that need our attention.

At the same time I am thinking about the transgender person I saw on the highway and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It occurs to me that there are so many transgender people who live daily lives where they are not sure if they will have sufficient food and shelter that day. They do not know if they will have  roof over their head and if it will be safe for them to sleep that night. Will they be assaulted, raped or even murdered?

In South Africa we lack so many resources. I am not even sure whether there are any shelters for transgender people, let alone where one may be. If I as a relatively intelligent, engaged and well resourced transgender person lack this knowledge, how can the people who need these facilities the most be expected to find them? How can we in South Africa speak of a human rights ‘culture’ when so many people (not only transgender people, although the data shows that transgender people are in greater danger due to societal, familial and cultural prejudice) are in such dire danger on a daily basis that they cannot be sure that their most basic rights (life, limb and property) will be respected, let alone guaranteed?

We need to start getting very real about human rights and stop paying lip service. People have a right to safety and security. We have a right to not starve in the cold on a street corner in Africa’s richest  city and crucially we all have a right to medical care. How can we achieve this when there are so many  people in such great need? Perhaps we can start with some safe places (shelters) where transgender people can at least get a meal and a warm dry bed. Then we can start fighting for state funded sex reassignment surgery waiting lists to be reduced from the frankly laughable twenty years, to something more realistic. But it seems to me that we need to check our (largely) middle class privilege and start dealing with the very real problems at the base of our community.

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