Comunal work; another pilar of the city. Cochabamba, Bolivia
How many important agreements have been signed throughout the years in an effort to improve people’s quality of life? How much have we had to struggle to try to ensure that every human right is recognized? We each have fought for our own side, when in reality all of us together are like the human body: by separating one right from another, we mutilate ourselves.
Right now we are concerned about the right to the city, the magnitude of which is almost incomprehensible because it combines all human rights. With the great mass of vehicles in circulation, we have lost the right to move freely, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to spaces for recreation. We lost that right, and we have lost sight of the fact that many children and youth have lost their right to be loved, cared for and protected by their parents, the authorities and society in general. Public spaces cannot be used without concern, because we are all looking out for our backs. There is no right to security.
The streets have become spaces for commerce, not for transit. The transport and commerce sectors have forgotten that they must respect all public spaces. Political favours and corruption prevent better city planning and social pressure makes it difficult to get around the city, due to the traffic jams, large crowds, signs and garbage. Every minute one spends in the street is stressful — irresponsible drivers do not respect traffic laws, store owners take over the sidewalks and irresponsible pedestrians throw garbage everywhere except in the almost nonexistent trash bins.
In many cities, there are few recreational spaces because no plans were made to include them. City governments have not paid attention to the continued growth of the population and thus did not foresee the demographic explosion. So many consultancies have been carried out, and yet even in this era of advanced technology, urban problems are left unsolved. Moreover, people’s quality of life is not improving. Every day, individualism pits us against one another and the fast-moving economy further alienates us from what is human.
How can we understand what is human from the perspective of human rights? Or how can human rights be understood by the authorities who believe that the mere fact of their authority means that we should be blindly obedient when they ignore laws and even the constitution? Their quest for power denigrates them as people. As there are no urban planning proposals for our cities, nor is there a common goal of improving people’s quality of life, every day new settlements appear without regard for the environment and basic services, and which lack infrastructure and safe streets.
Many families have suffered both economic and legal damage as a result of falling into the hands of developers who sell land at outrageous prices as part of uncontrolled speculation. These families have to pay for the lack of open space and infrastructure, while others have been swindled when buying safety buffer zones on the shores of rivers or open spaces which have already been planned for urbanization. Those who do not care about the right to housing and the right to the city are not concerned about the harsh reality of those families who meet this fate.
It would be good if there were at least some agreement between the authorities and city dwellers. By joining forces and walking together, we would advance and make wonderful cities.
We would have fewer poor people, children and youth in the streets, and less violence and crime. We should have public servants, not authorities. Public servants are dedicated to what they truly love to do, and that is because only honesty generates commitment.
It is important to have the will to achieve what we want. If one needs to live in peace, I will do what I can so that others can live in peace as well. If I do not want others to make me feel bad, I will do everything possible to make others feel better as well. The solutions for a better life are in our hands, but it seems as if we let them fall through our fingers simply because we are used to waiting. The message we get from the media is that there is nothing more for us to do except wait.
What will happen? Why think? In the end, it is the same…being poor is my fate and I cannot do anything about it, they tell me, and try to convince me of it.
At times, there is talk of hopes, dreams and illusions. But what are they? They also say I have rights; but to what? To die of hunger or to not be able to read or write? To suffer for a long time because of illness or to not have a well-paid job? To privacy, security, a healthy environment, basic services, a first and last name, to participate, to be taken into account, and to feel as if I exist? It seems like a joke because now there is only war, death and suffering, and we have learned to exist, simply to exist.
Faced with this scenario, we dream of a better world. We long to be protected by that great agreement among nations in support of human rights. We aspire to a full life and to developing and refining the conception of those rights. We seek to integrate them into complementary and convergent concepts such as the right to decent housing and habitat, and the right to the city; rights to enjoy spaces for living. Would all human rights be respected if we placed people inside a crystal bubble, completely protected and isolated? Spaces and the interaction of spaces are essential to personal development. The necessary environmental and infrastructure conditions must be generated so that human beings can fully demonstrate their qualities, so they can freely interact with other human beings without feeling coerced or intimidated, just as peasants often feel when faced with urban practices which are very different from what they are used to. So they can receive education and educate their children without discrimination or fear, so they will have equal and equitable access to basic health and education services, and so they can move freely wherever their freedom to act takes them.
This apparently hypothetical panorama is not just the responsibility of national leaders, but also of local authorities, who use their initiative to confront the complex network of economic challenges, social conflicts and political disputes. There is a community in the city of Cochabamba which was founded ten years ago. Someone who lives there told us about it:
“They say that there is a small place called “María Auxiliadora Community Habitat for Women,” where 265 families live and build their community together. They open their streets with community work, they help each other build their houses, they organise festivals and what they earn is used for health care or for whatever they need to build their homes. There are no bars or other stores selling alcoholic drinks. For me that is good because my husband drinks a lot and hits me, but he can’t hit me there because they say there is a family support committee.
If he hits me once or twice, they talk to him and they help us reflect on it, but if there is a third time they ask him to leave. I think I would feel safe there, most of all for my children, because we wouldn’t have to give up the house if we got divorced. I would never again have to beg any one to rent me a house. I thought that I had to put up with my husband hitting me, because I wouldn’t to be able to support my seven children. But there, they support us and help us get ahead, to look for work. We learn to make handicrafts, to read and write, and there is a youth centre and tutoring for our children. Since it is a community, I can ask my neighbour to watch my children while I am at work. And no one breaks into our houses to steal, because everyone knows each other. There are no strangers around and everyone looks out each other. When someone shouts, everyone goes out to help them.
They are well organised and work like little ants every Sunday. They have a board of directors that changes every two years, and the two top positions are always held by women. That must be why they have water, sewers, telephone services, electricity, a playground and two sports fields where all the kids play and hold tournaments. It’s so important to know your rights! I recently found out that I have the right to a house, but it’s so hard. Rights seem like something for people with money, but I don’t have any.
The right to health: if you have a house you will also have the right to health, but it’s difficult, I told myself. If I get sick, I have to go to the hospital, not to my house. But besides colds, I get sick because of other things, because of worries. Since it is my house, I don’t have to worry about being thrown out because I can’t pay the rent and because my babies make too much noise. The worst thing is when landlords and even fathers and brothers rape children, because they live in such crowded spaces together and they leave their daughters locked up at home.
The right to education: because you have to teach children from a very young to have values, order, discipline, to help with chores in the house, etc.
The right to work: lately, if you are a renter, people don’t trust you enough to give you a job. But if you have a house it is like a guarantee. They know where you live and neighbours can vouch for you. Since it is a community, everybody knows each other and they know how we all behave.
The right to live without violence: since there is a family support committee in the community that helps families make positive changes. The practice of reflection helps men stop drinking and mistreating both women and children.
The right to security: we all know each other, and if a stranger comes walking through here, we ask, and if someone shouts, a whistle is blown and we all come out. We have a good conduct agreement with the board of directors that requires us to address every problem, to ask for forgiveness and to reconcile with one another. It’s so important for us to relate well to one another and to not be enemies.
The right to food security: we have a little garden which provides us with some vegetables and we learn to maintain a balanced nutrition.
The women who have attended seminars, workshops and courses have learned how to defend their rights. The women who organised María Auxiliadora Community Habitat for Women have been learning about the human right to housing for twelve years through the national Habitat Network (Red Hábitat) and they belong to the Cochabamba Initiative Centre (Centro de Iniciativa Cochabamba). In ten years, they have made progress through a lot of work, and they still have much to do.
Solidarity is within all of us, even though it seems like it’s asleep. But when there is a need, it comes out to help people who are suffering.”
We could recount more experiences of women who came to this community to build their house through great efforts. Most of them saved cent by cent to be able to buy everything from a brick to a bag of nails.
As a community, we exercise our right to housing, but not with all of its components because the city government does not understand what the right to collective ownership is, nor does it understand the way in which we are organised. This is so, even though the human right to housing is clearly established in the Constitution (Article 56, paragraph I, Article 21), and it is the government’s obligation to facilitate the fulfilment of this right. The least it should do is facilitate and propose solutions to the problem without discriminating against us and without saying that we are illegal, since the land has been obtained through purchase and the constitution respects ownership rights, whether individual or collective. The lot and the house are for the family to live in, not to profit from, and they cannot be sold, rented or used for profit in any other way.
It is a community forged from the effort and commitment of each of its residents who clearly understands the rules. This is a community that has learned how to generate, facilitate and maximize economic and human resources, creating small loans for the self-construction of housing, as well as to help with health emergencies and economic enterprises. The small loans are supported by solidarity partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and the Pro-Habitat Foundation (Fundación Pro Hábitat), which support families with loans for new homes or for refurbishment.
Unfortunately, over these ten years there have been eight divorces or separations, three of which were forced because violent men were asked to leave the community while the others left on their own accord. In all cases, they asked to partition and divide the house, but these requests were rejected because of conditions imposed by the community. We are a community where the human right to housing is accessible for low-income people, particularly female heads of households. The principle of the human right to housing cuts across and is related to education, because that is where daughters and sons learn to nurture values, order, communication and human relationships. It is also related to health, because a well-ventilated and spacious house satisfies basic needs and is conducive to rest, which prevents illness. Finally, it is also related to work, because the home is the point of reference needed to obtain the trust of employers and banks. The community guarantees security because families are not alone and everyone cares about what happens to others in the community.
María Auxiliadora Community Habitat for Women is a project in which the main principle is family. It is made up of more than 320 family groups and more than 600 others are in the process of paying for a lot on which to build their house. It is a community space that ensures the accessibility of its members to infrastructure and recreational spaces, to citizen security and care for the environment. It is far from the stress created by loud noise and pollution, with safe streets and recreational spaces that promote social integration with people from other neighbourhoods.