A woman in rural Mexico recently told my colleague, "We've always been told we don't have a voice, but that's not true. Since we began looking for information, my life changed, and the lives of other people in the community as well."
Today, 28 September, is International Right to Know Day. The first ever law on the public's right to know was adopted in 1766 in the Kingdom of Sweden. It has since been recognised in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and 105 countries now have incorporated right to information legislation in their national legal frameworks. So why is this right so important?
Governments and public bodies hold huge quantities of information. They hold this information on behalf of the public, and have a duty to proactively publish information in the public interest. This includes delivering open access to people wanting specific information. The right to know entails a duty of transparency and openness on the part of government that some are reluctant to facilitate. In many ways, this reticence tells us just how important it is. The right to know is a right as vital as the right to water, education, or a livelihood: it ensures accountability and the enjoyment of other civil and socio-economic rights.
While considerable progress has been made globally on realising this right, a crucial element involves understanding that the existence of the right is meaningless without individuals and communities having knowledge of it, and an understanding of how to exercise it.
When given the tools to challenge decisions that affect their lives, the positive impact can be seen by whole communities. Notably, the empowerment created by access to information has begun taking root in Mexico in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, where women from indigenous communities are now demanding a range of basic rights that is changing their communities.
Despite having had a law on the right to information since 2002, meaningful access to information for marginalised communities, particularly indigenous and rural communities, is not yet a reality in Mexico. The access to information mechanism relies on people actively seeking information, as well as relying on Internet access, instead of reaching out to communities to provide information in accessible ways.
Authorities have tried to use the high levels of illiteracy to justify lack of access to information. In turn, the absence of accessible information has allowed authorities to escape accountability for the delivery of public services.
Last year, in partnership with a local women's organisation, Colectivo Feminista la Casa de la Mujer Ixim Antsetic (CAM), my colleagues in ARTICLE 19 worked with indigenous women from Chiapas and Tabasco to build capacity and exercise their right to know. The project saw the women of Chiapas and Tabasco demand their civil, socio-economic and cultural rights, and increase the visibility of women in public decision-making.
Women in these communities face marginalisation through gender discrimination, racism, illiteracy and geographical and linguistic isolation; participation in decision-making or local assemblies is often dependent on land ownership, which is usually only obtained by women through succession from their husbands.
Information has spread and continues to increase empowerment as a result. Murals have appeared displaying information on health, and education. Social programmes in Spanish, indigenous languages, and even in pictograms have been made available. Through collaboration with community radio, important information is now shared in local languages across the airwaves. Puppet-shows, pamphlets and illustrated storybooks convey the power of information in demanding public services and compliance with other rights, including health services and land rights.
In one community, where many suffer from treatable diseases (such as tuberculosis, hypertension and diabetes), there was no functional medical care and no doctor present on a regular basis. Change was achieved within a matter of months with the women participating in the project requesting the name of the doctor assigned to their medical centre, their salary and their work schedule, as well as the monthly amount of medicine assigned to the centre.
The Ministry of Health of Chiapas state responded with the information and, after the women presented the information to the community, the community as a whole made a complaint the Ministry of Health, the Sanitary Jurisdiction and the Municipality, based on the information received.
The community made several demands to the authorities. They demanded a new doctor, who would actually complete their schedule of work. They asked for an explanation for the lack of health services, and then formed a community committee to monitor services monthly, increasing accountability for their provision. A new medical centre opened shortly afterwards in a disused storage building, regular hours were established, medicines were provided according to prescriptions, and people were examined and treated without discrimination.
This success has been repeated elsewhere. Within months, using their right to know, women in several communities in Chiapas held authorities accountable for the suspension of school classes and ensured that they began again, guaranteeing their children's right to education. They also successfully challenged political corruption and attempts to coerce their votes through the denial of a social welfare programme, even causing the removal of responsible public officials.
Through the project, the communities established a network named Red Junco. As a member of the network explained "Junco is a plant that we find in swamps. Even when the water dries up, the roots live and the plant grows again." The network is a multiplier of training, knowledge and tools to ensure sustainable change, often through the sharing of information on community-specific issues. "After this, people began speaking out. Our neighbours have done the same thing. They demand, demand."
The right to know has the potential to create long-term sustainable change, even in communities where political and social isolation can make people easy targets for the violation of their rights. In celebrating Right to Know Day, we are creating hope that more and more Red Juncos will emerge and establish roots to empower communities, and hold those in power to account.