UN issues damning report on povertyBy: CATHERINE SASMAN
ALTHOUGH Namibia’s chances to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council look dim, it still has a “window of opportunity” to comply with some of the recommendations made by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda.
Sepúlveda was in the country on an eight-day visit at the invitation of the Namibian government to gather first-hand information on the situation of people living in extreme poverty and to understand the initiatives taken by the government to improve the situation of the poor and respect their human rights.
She is to present the government with a preliminary report by February next year, and the final report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council by June 2013, after which Namibia’s attempt to get council membership will be considered.
But Sepúlveda’s observations during her visit painted a bleak picture of the prospects of reducing poverty. She concluded that the government’s poverty-alleviation interventions have disappointing outcomes due to a limited capacity for implementation and monitoring, lack of a comprehensive strategy and weak coordination between various policies.
“I welcome the fact that the government has identified poverty and inequality as one of its key focus areas. However, more can and must be done. The government must devise and adopt a poverty-reduction strategy based on human rights and actively engage individual groups, especially those living in poverty, in its design and implementation,” the Argentinian special rapporteur said.
She said government efforts to create jobs have been unsuccessful, and the Targeted Intervention Programme for Employment and Economic Growth (Tipeeg) would only create a limited number of sustainable jobs without addressing the needs of unskilled labour and subsistence farmers.
She commented on the acutely visible divide between rich and poor in Namibia’s urban centres, and urged the government to address the developmental shortcomings in informal settlements with a sense of urgency.
While proposing structural adjustments to address corruption and unaccountability for public funds at local and central government levels, Sepúlveda recommended that the first step should be for government to consider abolishing user fees at public health facilities and to “promptly repeal” the school development fund scheme.
She said considering the HIV-AIDS scourge and Namibia’s high levels of maternal and child mortality, free access to healthcare should be a priority in economic and human rights terms.
“Removing user fees may be a direct way to increase access and assist health outcomes without a considerable increase in budgetary costs for the State,” she proposed.
She said the negative impact of the school development fund scheme, which often forced poor children to drop out or stay away from school, was not not only in contravention of the right to free primary education as stipulated in the Namibian Constitution, but also led to stigmatisation of those who could not pay the school fees.
Sepúlveda further said the positive impact of some social grants to orphaned and vulnerable children was diminished when part of the money was used to pay school fees instead of buying food or medicine.
She further recommended that the government enact the Child Care and Protection Bill as a matter of priority and allocate the necessary budgetary and human resources for effective implementation.
On a different score, Sepúlveda made an impassioned plea to the government to withdraw its appeal against the High Court verdict in a case where a State hospital was found to have coercively sterilised HIV-positive women, saying the appeal sent the wrong message.
“I was disturbed that the government has appealed the case on the basis of a technicality, especially given that the main motivation of these women is for the government to take active measures to stop the generalised practice of forced sterilisation of women.
“I was appalled to learn that the government has not taken a strong and public stand against these practices, nor established a mechanism to assess the extent of the practice and to take concrete measures to actively prevent and protect women against it,” said Sepúlveda.
Another recommendation from her preliminary report is that prostitution should be decriminalised by repealing the provisions relating to sex work in the Combating of Immoral Practices Act of 1980.
“The de facto criminalisation of sex work is a severe barrier to the equal enjoyment of sex workers of their basic human rights to health, education, freedom of movement, security of person, privacy and human dignity,” she said.