Poverty: Nothing about us, without us, can be for us

Just as women’s rights would never have been won without women at the helm, poverty will never be truly addressed until those who experience it firsthand are at the heart of the process.

For the last two years, Scotland’s first Poverty Truth Commission has brought together two groups of people: people who exercise power and influence in Scottish society and people who live every day with the struggle against poverty.

Ghazala Hakeen is one of the ‘testifiers’ for the Commission. Here is just part of her story:

Poverty is an issue that can affect anyone, in anyway, anyplace. When I was approached to be a testifier for the Poverty Truth Commission I wouldn’t have actually classed myself to be one living in poverty. One thinks of poverty and images of starving, naked Africans come to mind. However, when poverty is explored it brings to light the fact that poverty has many different guises.

I am a person who fits into many communities. I am a female, Asian, Muslim, single parent, from Govanhill and poverty can affect any of these communities. Poverty affects me. I rely on benefits to survive and ensure my daughter and I are looked after with the basic necessities – a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs, clothes on our back. Having to live within the constraints of benefits means that the essentials are naturally a priority but having to worry about when the brown envelope is going to come and will the cost be within the confines of benefit payout.

My daughter has not done anything to deserve this. She has been unfortunate to be born into poverty. Poverty ensured that my daughter wasn’t able to get a birthday party with all the trimmings in a children’s play area like her peers.

Poverty ensures that I cannot take my daughter on holiday, not even to places which are so common, and cheap to some, such as Benidorm or Majorca. Poverty ensures I cannot buy my daughter the toys she desires or ensure she has the appropriate school uniform with the school logo instead sufficing for a version that is merely the same colour.

A lack of respect from self and others due to ones situation leads to other problems. Hope can be washed away having to accept ones situation. The knock on effect could be that the next generation is compelled to accept that poverty is in their fate too. A vicious circle.

What worries me is that if I went into employment then I would be liable for my own rent, council tax would increase, I would have to pay for regular travel expenses, pay for childcare, and miss out on quality time with my daughter. Being so close to my daughter, as we only have each other, prevents me from gaining employment too. I don’t want to be apart from her.

I am aware of the government's drive to get people off benefits and into employment. This should not be seen as a solution on its own. For many being on benefits have its advantages. Would a salary be able to give the same amount if not more comfort? There are many changes to be made.

The Poverty Truth Commission has been a two year project bringing together some of Scotland’s civic leaders with people at the sharp end of poverty. They have worked together to discover the truths about poverty, and explore real solutions to it. They have also become friends.

The Commission was formed in March 2009 after a group of people from disadvantaged communities in Glasgow testified on poverty in front of 400 people. That day a group of Scotland’s decision makers decided to join with the testifiers, accepting that they could not address poverty without those affected. This Saturday (16 April 2011), members of the Poverty Truth Commission will share what they have learnt together and what they believe needs to happen now. To find out more visit www.povertytruthcommission.org.

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(c) Niall Cooper has been National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty (http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/) since 1997. He regularly speaks on church and poverty issues on radio and TV, and has written for a number of national publications. His blog, from which this is adapted with acknowledgement and thanks, can be found at: http://niallcooper.wordpress.com/

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