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Dignity Diary
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When The price we pay for Dignity and honour is poverty of the heart

Ingrid UN2014-3
Ingrid Stellmacher speaking at the United Nations in New York in 2014 to 400 NGO's during the launch of The Dignity Diaries.
The below includes extracts from her speech 'Poverty of the Heart'

Excessively patriarchal societies breed a harsh form of poverty. Polarising power, division, exclusion and discrimination. All of which contribute to escalating levels of violence, that all too easily become the norm.

We see it happening all over the world - all of us in this room, in the work we do, in some of the political institutions with which we engage, and for some of us - even in our own homes.  Poverty has many faces, many causes, with some effects hiding in plain sight.  It cripples humanity from the inside out and when it does, it creates another form of poverty 'Poverty of the heart'.

Research shows that the lack of development to connections in areas of the brain, through continual destructive and violent behaviour, limits the ability to exercise compassion and recognise emotional responses in others.  It slows the ability to communicate effectively, emotionally, and the most basic requirement of all, for humanity, limits the connections in areas of the brain that enables empathy. 

The way we treat one another, speak to one another, look at one another, or exclude one another, affects our own mental and emotional development, shaping who we are and the way we live.  It is a vicious cycle of destruction for everyone involved.  Forever treating a single group or person badly, literally leaves those neural pathways to possibilities and capabilities so neglected, that the conversation between our head and our heart becomes the ‘road less travelled’.

I am not speaking of the victims of violence and discrimination here, but more of the effect that the act of repeated violence and exclusion, carried out against an individual or group, has on the person doing it - the perpetrator.  What it does to them on the inside, especially in the way their brian develops as they become wired for violence.

Sanctioned by the culture you live in and woven into values backed up by laws to contain you, there is little chance of escape.  So what can we do to stop the violence inside and out?  In trying to grapple with any behaviour change we need to understand what has shaped it and what lies beneath, to create different approaches because your values shape the way you see the world.  And if you live in a world without compassion, how will you know what it looks like?  What it feels like?  How will you change it and why would you change it?  What would be in it for you? 

Dignity Diaries

In looking at poverty of the heart, I have been working with the role that dignity plays in our lives. Some tell me it is an old-fashioned word, an out-dated concept, no longer relevant for today. But it is relevant, for human dignity is the defining pillar upon which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself rests. Arguably the most important post World War II document created.  If dignity is weakened the world is weakened.  In my work, I have found dignity to be like peace and like love - you can’t touch it, you can’t buy it and you can’t hold it in your hand - but you know when you don’t have it.  

Like peace and like love, dignity is best known by its absence.  Its forced absence all too often used as a tool of war – to humiliate.  And humiliation is contagious.  So, do I belive dignity is still relevant in today’s world?  My work shows that it is and without it we lose a glbally agreed benchmark of behaviour.

But dignity is a complex concept, closely entwined with identity, with honour, with shame, with guilt, and humiliation because human beings are complex.  And because I work with human beings and their complexities, the often, fragile concept of dignity is the focus of a programme I am launching today called the Dignity Diaries.  Interviews providing insights and learning on the impact of dignity lost, or dignity reclaimed, in the lives of those at the heart of events from all over the world, reminding us of our value and that humanity still have much to learn about itself and our attitude to the planet.

Dignity Diaries

In one Diary, Ziauddin Yousafzsi, who you may know better as the father of Malala, the Pakistani schoolgirl short by the Taliban 2-years-ago, for daring to go to school, Ziauddin, now UN Special Advisor for Global Education, vividly describes how 'he did not clip the wings of his daughter in the name of, false dignity and false honour'.

'Freedom is her right' he declares, his own bravery revealed.  But it was not until speaking about the role that dignity and honour plays in his culture, exploring it in conversation - that he understood how it much contributed to the shooting of his daughter in trying to keep their lives small. Cultural norms have a habit of hiding in plain sight.

There is a moment in his Diary when his voice drops and he quietly shares how 'He feels ashamed to be a man sometimes', when he thinks about ‘how badly and unfairly men have treated women in his culture’.  It is a moment of humility against the background of a brutal reality, that many men face around the world, and we need to find a way to engage with them  and support them - as much as we need them to engage with us.

'Most forms of poverty we are familiar with but poverty of the heart is the road less travelled’

We are all familiar with the economic poverty of women excluded from contributing fully to life; keeping their world small. We all know that limiting the contribution of women, limits prosperity for families, communities, and economic growth. We know when women lose, we all lose.

Everyone in this room knows the impact of poverty of choice. When women are excluded the right to determine who has power over their own body; their own minds, and their own lives.  When girls as young as eight years of-age, many already maimed by FGM, are sold to pay off debts, without choice or power, to voice their own opposition, being married off to ancient men to have children with, when still only children themselves.

And everyone in this room knows that excessive patriarchy breeds poverty of education, access, and opportunity, including basic health education for their children. When babies and infants are dying of malnutrition in Afghanistan not just through lack of food, but through lack of the basic education allowed to young mothers on baseline nutrition and what babies need to be healthy. Not because that information isn't out there but because women themselves are not allowed ‘out there’.  Out of their homes to access the education for themselves and their children, by their husbands, their brothers, their uncles, cousins, until they want to, all in the name of dignity and honour.  Arriving at clinics sometimes so late in their child's illness that when they do get ‘out there’, their babies are too sick to save.

Dying of starvation is tragedy enough.  Dying of deliberately created ignorance and prevention of access to the right to health, is a crime - because these deaths are Avoidable. What gives them the right to choose a child will live or die?  Not their mothers and certainly not their faith.


Research shows that different values activate different thought structures within the brain and even show that different areas in the visual cortex, the area which processes what we see, is activated in different ways, according to different cultural values and beliefs.  Creating a fundamental difference in the way we see the world and act towards others.  It is a difference we have to recognise the importance of - not just in our work - but in our world in general.  Because our values, act as an anchor of certainty in an ever increasing uncertain and unstable world – we need them. We hold on to them at any cost.  They create a framework by which we live, however harsh.  We fight for our values, go to war to defend them, commit unspeakable acts in their name - but there are no winners in war – everyone loses in one way or another and that all important framework of values, in the end is all too often left in tatters because of the lines we cross to protect them.

'Every daughter is like Malala in wanting an education', Ziauddin explains, and while I’m sure that desire is true, sadly every father, however, is not like him. We need to work together with men across civil society and politics to help one another.

Dignity Diaries

In his Dignity Diary, Andre Mostert a lecturer from South Africa, talks movingly about ‘white guilt’ how it affected him growing up under Apartheid, and how 30 years later - it affects him still. What touched me most is when he recalls the moment black South Africans finally got the vote and the lines of people waiting were so long, that he and his school friends decide not to queue…..

"The world had moved on right, but for us spoilt white boys, it was just voting yeah.  So, we go into a pub and watch it on TV.  And I'll never forget, we were sitting there watching journalists talking to people, standing in those lines for hours, that went on forever, and this one journalist goes up to an old black woman waiting patiently in line and says to her:

'How long have you been waiting in this queue?  She turns to him and declares:

'My whole life."

Says Andre “I get goose bumps even now just thinking about it. Because it was the moment I realised this isn’t just about them – or one side against another – it’s about us!  It was about us getting our dignity back, because we gave them their dignity back, simply on-the-basis of being human.”


When I showed Andre’s Dignity Diary to young women at a workshop in Rajasthan, India, for the Guild of Service. I asked Merra Khan, the Guild’s deputy, how long she had been waiting in the queue to make a difference to the lives of widows in India she had dedicated her life to - the answer she gave: ‘2000 years.’


The good news is that narrowed network of neural development, can be changed, it can be expanded.  The world can grow bigger and more beautiful. Unexplored emotional areas of the brain can be activated due to its plasticity and new pathways in the language of empathy and compassion forged.  We can break out of that cycle of fear and negative behaviour - we can become whole again.


Most of us in this room today, have been working our whole lives to get to the front of our own queue – like Merra and like the lady in South Africa.  We work to change things in ways that we can, to make a difference, to make something of meaning, to leave a legacy. 

The Dignity Diaries is my way – I know you have yours, that’s why you’re here today, in the Dag Auditorium at the United Nations, as we take heart from each other and share what we’ve learned.  I hope you will join me in exploring how we can implement the Dignity Diaries in our own areas of work. 

Please, sign up - and maybe someday soon we’ll meet up at the front of the queue or better still, there won’t be one anymore. ….

Thank you.

Interviews with Ziauddin Yousafzsi and Andre Mostert can be found by clicking on the link 'New Global Conversation' Dignity and Honour Campaign on our home page.

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