Human rights and the urban poor

Individuals, organizations, and governments around the world are developing creative ways to promote and uphold the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In recognition of Human Rights Day on December 10th, this conversation highlights solutions to issues ranging from discrimination against refugees to lack of access to sanitation. These solutions — which include online monitoring systems, a thriller feature film, in-home toilets, and activist photography — raise awareness and provide much-needed services for vulnerable communities.

Read on to find out more about these initiatives from Nairobi, Jakarta, Dhaka, and Mumbai, and then share your thoughts in the discussion below.

Katy Fentress

On Somalis, corruption, and terrorism: addressing the rights of Nairobi's urban refugees on-screen

Katy Fentress, Nairobi Community Manager


The September 2013 Westgate crisis was the most recent in a slew of attacks that have rocked Kenya since it began military operations in Somalia two years ago.

The blame for this and previous attacks has generally been pinned on the Islamist group Al Shabaab, who claim to be retaliating against what for them is an unjust invasion and occupation of their country.

While Eastleigh, a neighborhood in the east of Nairobi that houses most of the city's Somali immigrants, has borne the brunt of most of these attacks, residents have also experienced a rise in hostility from local Kenyans and harassment at the hands of the police.

Somalis in Nairobi live as urban refugees escaping from harsh realities back home. In their daily lives they invariably are affected to some degree by three overwhelming challenges. These, according to Kenyan-based film producer Vincenzo Cavallo, are discrimination, corruption, and terrorism.

In an attempt to address these three symbiotic challenges, a movie is currently being produced by Cultural Video Foundation (CVF), a Nairobi-based film production company that is run by Cavallo and fellow-filmmaker Alessandra Argenti, with the support of an Italian NGO called the International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP) and funding from the European Union.

The aim of the film, named Wazi FM, is to speak out about discrimination against Somali refugees at the hands of police and the connection between this and the rise in terrorist attacks. The film also attempts to send a message on the topic of corruption, as it highlights how it is this widespread practice that allows terrorists to cross the border into the Kenya in the first place.

In Cavallo's view, in order to prevent future terrorist attacks in Kenya and Somalia, it is essential to find a way for refugee communities and the police to work together on reporting suspicious activities and building trust where at the moment there is none.

With Wazi FM, CVF has attempted to create a Kenyan Somali thriller. Filmed entirely in one location, the film is, according to Cavallo, a surreal take on the genre and one that aims to compete with commercial productions by providing the public with a breathtaking and compelling story.

The aim of the production is to speak to both Kenyans and Somalis about how it is corruption and not immigration that is the main cause of insecurity in the country. Allowing Kenyan authorities to keep on with the extortion, harassment, and targeting of Somalis residents only serves to increasingly marginalize them and to create fertile territory where would-be terrorists and attackers can operate.

Wazi FM was initially conceived as a twelve-episode TV series. Unfortunately, due to budgetary constraints, this was later cut down to a one-off feature film. CVF remains optimistic that they will succeed in broadening the reach of the show and that at some point it will be picked up by a local television channel brave enough to broadcast such a controversial message, or by an international distributor that is keen on covering sensitive topics of this kind.

Countries like Kenya that have signed the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are required to uphold the rights of all people to liberty and security of person. They are also expected to guarantee non-discriminatory minority rights and equality before the law. It is thus imperative that the issue of corruption be adequately addressed both from the bottom up and through institutional processes, in order to guarantee that Kenyan citizens of Somali origin, and Somalis who are living in Kenya, are not subjected to discrimination on the part of those who are tasked with upholding their rights.

Photo: Lorenzo Misselari



While in-home toilets are undoubtedly the easiest, sustainable and most scalable solution, the question is not merely of provision of toilets inside slum dwellings. Over 70% of the city’s sprawling slums that house more than 62% of the total population (nearly eight million people) are not connected to the municipal sewerage system. Therefore, the question for which there are no easy answers is that of safe sewage disposal. However, given technological and engineering innovations, safe and proper sewage disposal is indeed possible in a majority of slums. In slums where sewerage connectivity is not possible, establishment of large-capacity septic tanks, albeit under strict supervision and regulations, can be thought of as a viable alternative – at least in areas where hydrological hurdles like high water table that might negate provision of septic tanks do not exist. But these technical barriers will not be encountered everywhere and there is no reason why each and every possible technical solution should not be tried out to measure their efficacy and scalability.

In terms of finance, there is no barrier at all. The municipal corporation is flush with funds and there are ample financial resources available from several other quarters, including Central Government assistance. A qualitative and exploratory study conducted by ORF Mumbai has revealed that most slum residents are willing to bear the cost of toilet construction if they are assured of safe sewage disposal. Thus, capital investment will be required primarily for implementing sewage disposal solutions on a massive scale.

All these barriers notwithstanding, even if individual toilets can be provided for just 30-40% of the slum population, it will transform their lives forever. Just remember that in Mumbai, we are talking about a very large population (12.4 million as per the Government of India Census 2011) and thus, seemingly small percentages add up to several millions of people. Water and sanitation policies require urgent and sweeping changes in Mumbai and all of urban India, as sanitation is not just an issue of human rights, but also a matter of human dignity.

Carlin Carr's picture

Dhaval, thanks for all your fantastic insights on the sanitation issue in Mumbai, and it's interesting to think about the group's proposal to move forward with individual toilets. Since there don't seem to be financial barriers, what is stopping this from happening? Is there political will to take control of this on a large scale and get the infrastructure in place so household toilets can become a reality for every slum dweller?

These are problems in Accra as any other sub-Saharan country. This an interview a friend shared on one of the radio stations in Accra.

Remand prisoners with expired warrant, problems of street children, child labour, child prostitution, dehumanising treatments of mental health patients, discrimination against HIV/AIDS patients, policemen becoming debt collectors are among some of the major human rights abuses in Ghana today.

Parental irresponsibility, breakdown in social systems, poor and ineffective social welfare system, ignorant police service with little respect for fundamental rights of the poor citizenry, poor human rights education are among some of the causes.

Parents must live up to expectation. Don't have kids if you are not willing and ready to care or them. Government must step up pro-poor interventions and get the Social Welfare System working effectively. police administration need training so they could become pro Human rights in their law enforcement functions.

Finally the victim of abuse can rise above their circumstances and still make it in life. If I made it from the street in child labour to become a lawyer, our decision to become victims forever is a choice. If your parents fail you, and the social system fails you, you can chose NOT to fail yourself. Rise up and shine.

Katy Fentress's picture

I'm fascinated by the fact that three out of four of the articles on human rights this week covered the issue of minority rights.
Ethnic and religious minorities appear to be highly-susceptible to human rights abuses often because they can easily be used as scapegoats to obfuscate what is really going on.
As human migration continues to increase, spurned by a desire to search for a better life, to escape from violence back home or simply to seek out economic opportunities where at home there are none, it becomes important to devise national and global strategies that will safeguard their rights all over the world and ensure that they do not suffer at the hands of unscrupulous decision makers who are after a quick-political fix.

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

widya anggraini's picture

I found it really interesting on issue in Sanitation as Human Right and the work of fellows in India on community toilets.
May i asked further the structure of group who maintain the toilets and how they rise the funding?? because the case in indonesian slums we mostly rely on government in maintaining although initially they were built by Ngo. Around 90's we have a cooperation where people can save money to buy toilet for their house,but the same cooperation is no longer exist.

I also noticed about religious minorities issue in Indonesia and Bangladesh although minority in this case are people from myanmar while in my case they are indonesian. I am wondering what kind of policy has been issued by Bangladesh government regarding this issue and is there government willingness to integrate them within current system and they receive similar benefit as citizen (inclusive policy)?

widya anggraini

Dear Widya, thanks for expressing interest in the exemplary work done by Tritarna Prerana Mandal in transforming lives through their community toilet model in a slum in Mumbai. Triratna Prerana Mandal (TPM) is a community-based organisation established in 2001 by a few spirited residents of the area under the municipal corporation's Slum Adoption Program. Their mandate was to take over the management of the existing community sanitation block and run it on a pay-per-use model.

They took up this challenge with missionary zeal and in just 10 years, have managed to bring about a miraculous turn around in not just the condition of the sanitation block and its facilities for both men and women of the area but even for residents of a large number of nearby slums. While the urinals are free to use, a small token amount is collected for the use of bathing and toilet facilities. TPM was ably supported by a truly devoted municipal officer in their effort. Today, against all odds, TPM, besides operating the community toilet, has expanded its activities to cover a gamut of social initiatives. Their scope of work includes running a women's self-help group, vocational training programs for the slum youth, managing the upkeep and maintenance of the nearby municipal playground which hosts varied cultural activities besides promoting sportsman spirit among the slum youth, a community gymnasium, running a community kitchen on the terrace of the toilet block which prepares food for 3,000 municipal school children under the government's midday meal scheme, a computer training institute offering courses in accounting and other multi-use professional computer software.

The sanitation block uses municipal water only for bathing purposes, all other water used for flushing the cleaning purposes is supplied by a rainwater harvesting system. The whole sanitation block - including the TPM's office, the community kitchen and the computer training institute runs on solar power. You can get more information on TPM on its website

TPM is the recipient of the Urban Age Award from the Deutsche Bank in 2007 and on November 19, 2013 - the World Toilet Day - it was selected as the Best Community Toilet in Mumbai by Clean India Journal. It has ploughed back all the prize money into improving the sanitation block and other facilities.

Carlin Carr's picture

Widya, good question--since there is a large gap in the number of toilet seats needed to serve the city's population, NGOs also run toilet blocks. TPM is an NGO and individuals pay to use the toilets, which is used to maintain the facilities. The organization has also been internationally recognized for its work and has won various awards, and therefore has received outside funding as well.

Saima Sultana Jaba's picture

Actually, the Rohingya issue is far from addressed and it is hard to find proper solution to solve the dynamic issue soon as there exist a serious lacking of accountability and collaboration among NGOs, national, and international sectors. However, it is necessary for people to realize their full humanity because the promotion and protection of security are inextricably linked to promotion and protection of human rights and dignity. Dhaka has long insisted that the presence of humanitarian aid organizations in Rohingya communities creates a “pull factor” for other Rohingya to enter the country. Now, it is significant to keep pointing to the fact that awareness raising, especially out of Dhaka, is a crucial ‘solution’ for an issue.

Especially to protect the human rights issues, awareness-raising campaigns can be crucial for addressing issues like the Rohingya and fostering change. For example, photography is an excellent way to discuss a particular awareness-raising solution and how it has been advanced.

Excellent analysis on sanitation as a public health issue. Great to know India is finally waking up to the crude realities of economic and consequently social imbalance it faces. While NGOs and other interested groups/individuals may try to do their best to fix this issue, the real push for enacting/implementation and reforming current public health policies lie with the local muncipal/city governments. Mumbai is just a snapshot of the bigger problems faced with regards to sanitation, hygiene and ofcourse water management across the country. Political will across the whole spectrum of governmental bodies is vital for any visible changes to happen. Kudos to Mr Dhaval Desai and the ORF team for being front runners in trying to bridge the gap between widly present but neglected public health issues and actual governmental/ground action.

Carlin Carr's picture

Nandan, thanks for your comment, and I agree that the ORF team is doing great work on the sanitation front. Their researchers are working on a number of important issues across Mumbai, and I would recommend following their work here: In fact, we at recent interviewed a colleague of Dhaval's whose name is Rachel D'Silva. She is coming out with a study on malnutrition in Mumbai, comparing a notified and an unnotified slum. One of her recommendations for improving the overall health, nutritional status and well-being of the children found to be "under-nourished" is improved sanitiation. Also, just the other day, I heard a talk by a community health doctor from Sion Hospital in Mumbai, the public hospital that serves Dharavi, and she told us that every week she would pack bags and bags of medicines for a regular outreach project in one particular slum and after months, she realized there was very little improvement, despite the regular injections and check-ups. Her solution: work locally to get a municipal pipe laid and improved sanitation. In fact, once this happened, then the doctor finally began to see the changes she had been working towards.

Chris Baulman's picture

I hope someone can tell me why dry composting toilets are not being considered?

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