GEND 1006 Guest Lecture

Nov 15 2016
International Human Rights 

Farmer, P. (2005). On Suffering and Structural Violence: Social and Economic Rights in the Global Era. In Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (pp. 29-50). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

 Universal Declaration of Human Rights at  

Who am I? And what do I teach? You are presently on my work website so you can look at syllabi for current and recent courses here.

Social justice is based on the idea of a just society. In a just society individuals and groups receive fair treatment and a just share of the benefits of society.

Human Rights offers one way of trying to ensure that individuals receive fair treatment and a just share of the benefits of society.

As Farmer explains, political and economic forces within a country can put its citizens at great risk for poverty, HIV, racism, tuberculosis, high infant morality, low life expectancies, torture, rape and other forms of suffering. Human Rights are the result of a global attempt to establish what people need to live comfortably and to their fullest potential.

Your thoughts on the readings?

“Social medicine”


structural violence: refers to structural inequalities that deny some people their basic needs. Mary K. Anglin (2010) writes, “Through structural forms of violence persons are socially and culturally marginalized in ways that deny them the opportunity for emotional and physical well-being, or expose them to assault or rape, or subject them to the hazards that can cause sickness and death” (145). 

Citation: Anglin, M.K. (2010). Feminist perspectives on structural violence. Identities, 5 (1): 145-151.

In relation to structural violence and social inequalities, Farmer argues that wealth, poverty and social class are very strong determinants of health, safety, suffering, HIV and mortality rates. I want to start by placing his analysis in a Canadian context.

As the income gap widens, the groups most at risk of living in poverty are women, children, single-parent families most of which are headed by women, racial minorities, immigrants and refugees, seniors, people with disabilities, and Aboriginal peoples.

For those left behind, this growing income gap has serious consequences. For individuals and families, adequate income helps to buy food, clothing and shelter, but it also contributes to our health, security and community involvement. The income gap in turn produces an “accessibility gap.”

In terms of structural violence, poor people and working-class people in Canada have poorer health, shorter life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates and more preventable diseases.

Any thoughts on the consequences of the growing income gap in Canada?

Leslie Thielen-Wilson’s guest lecture reminds us of structural violence facing Indigenous women in Canada. We want to place Canada into its larger global context and we have to do so with an awareness of inequalities within Canada.

In comparison to other countries, where do you think Canada – in general – stands globally in terms of relative privilege, poverty and human suffering?

According to UNICEF:

1960 – 20 million children globally died before their fifth birthday because of poverty

2007 – for the first time since record keeping began, the number of deaths of young children has fallen below 10 million a year to 9.7 million

Based on the massive improvements made between 1960 and 2007 economists such as Jeffrey Sachs have argued that extreme poverty could be eliminated by the middle of this century.

To achieve this we have to continue to understand the sources of suffering and poverty in order to better transform them.

Paul Farmer illustrates how some people are structurally placed at much greater risk for suffering, poverty and violence. He recounts for us the lives of two different Haitians, one woman and one man. We are going to talk much more about these lives which are marked by tragedy. 

What are some of the experiences that Acephie endures in her short life?

What are some of the experiences that Chouchou endures in his short life? 

Does Farmer think that these people’s lives / stories are unusual or typical in the context of Haiti? What does he say?

 What are some of the cultural, historical, political and economic factors that made these two individuals vulnerable to violence and suffering?

How might you offer a gender analysis of these two people’s lives?

What role does poverty play in both of their lives? How does their poverty ultimately make them vulnerable?

A phrase that is quite common these days is “the feminization of poverty.” Does that sound familiar to anyone? If yes, what do you think it means?

Farmer says that poverty leads women, especially, into “unfavourable unions” (p. 39).

When talking about Acephie’s relationship with the married soldier, Farmer questions the notion of “consensual sex” on page 39. What is he talking about?

Farmer is suggesting that race and sex are important to consider, but that poverty and social class are strongly related to mortality rates. What do you think of his argument?

“Agency”: What does this mean?

How might poverty restrict a person’s agency?

Farmer writes that in order to analyze and predict violence and suffering our analysis must:

  1. be “geographically broad” (42) – What does this mean?
  1. recognize that “extreme suffering… is seldom divorced from the actions of the powerful” (42) – What does this mean?
  1. be “historically deep” – What does this mean?
  1. simultaneously consider how “various social ‘axes’” or identities “play a role in rendering individuals and groups vulnerable to extreme suffering” (43, 42) – What does this mean?
  1. recognize that “social factors” such as gender and race, for example, “are differentially weighted in different settings and in different times” (43) – What does this mean?
  1. be not only quantitative (i.e. statistics), but also qualitative – What does this mean? (i.e. life stories, ethnographies)

This week sets up the need to think globally and to come up with global solutions like human rights that seek to minimize human suffering through international law.

What are human rights?

Human rights refers first to the belief that all human beings should have access to a minimally decent life regardless of race, sex, language, religion, political leanings or whether you are rich or poor. And secondly, the enshrinement of these principles in treaties and law.

Human rights begin as moral and philosophical claims.

Moral claims talk about right or wrong actions, what should or should not happen.

Examples: Moral claims that Farmer makes

Overview of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Human Rights begin as moral philosophical claims about what “ought to be” and then can be translated into legal instruments. For example, the moral claim that “people should live their lives free of torture” is written into a treaty and then countries are invited to sign on, ratify and commit to work within their own country to ensure that people will live their lives free of torture. Ideally these ratified treaties are then integrated into national laws.

In Canada, human rights can be seen in various levels of law and governance: UN international human rights treaties; Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (; and provincial or workplace human rights codes.

Within these human rights responsibilities and duties there are “negative” obligations and “positive” obligations.

In the “negative” category are the expectations that states will refrain from certain actions. What do you imagine states might be asked to refrain from in the context of human rights?

Where “negative” obligations require states to refrain from certain actions, “positive obligations” require the state to act. Such as…?

“Positive” and “negative” here are not related to “good” and “bad” but rather negative duties can be seen as “freedom from” state intervention (first generation rights), and the positive duties can be seen as “freedom to” a minimally decent life (second generation rights).

The United Nations rights framework helped to change the Indian Act in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada said that that the Indian Act discriminated against Indigenous women, but the Canadian government didn’t do anything. So Indigenous women in Canada went to the UN and the UN put pressure on the Canadian government, and it was only then that the Indian Act was changed for the first time.

Human rights are both making significant and positive changes in the world and they are very gently enforced at this point in time.