Former UN Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation, the Portuguese national, Catarina, has been struggling for human rights and an end to social inequality since she was a child.

When I was little, a French series “Once upon a time … men” was playing on Portuguese TV. It was a cartoon that told the story of humanity; I used to watch it and experienced great anguish, because everything had already been invented. I think I started working with human rights because my main purpose in life was to work in an area where not everything had already been invented. In the realm of human rights, there’s still room for invention. The issue of inequality is something that bothers me immensely. It´s a victory that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) already established a major reference to the mitigation of inequality, but I wish there were less inequality in the world This is my life struggle, to make people realize that those who have much should not have that much, that they should share a little, and that public policies should be created to give more to those who have nothing and take something from those who already have so much. I wanted to be able to convince the public authorities that this current system does not work. And we don’t have to resort to Communism, nor have total equality. That’s not what I’m talking about; I’m talking about the most abject poverty. It is an affront to the dignity of human being. We all have the right to a minimum of dignity, and those who have a lot can give up a little and then, the governments are those required to adopt public policies that help the richest follow this path. That’s what I want, it’s just little.”Catarina de Lonet Delgado Truninger de Albuquerque Santos Lima, or just Catarina de Albuquerque, was the first United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the issues of water and sanitation and had an important role in the recognition of the human right to water and sanitation. A Law graduate, she achieved the dream of working with human rights, but only after finishing college, a course she hated at the beginning. “I told my mother every day: ‘I want to give up, I want to give up’. And my mother always replied ‘Hold on, you have to hold on’. When I got to the end of my freshman year, I thought: This year was so horrible that I don’t have the courage to change. Because if I had transferred to another course and this new course would be just as horrible, all that suffering I had been through would had been for nothing, so I graduated – and I ended up here.

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Regarding water, however, it was not originally her own choice; she was elected from 300 candidates. “I had to catch up because I was swamped with information. I started studying and now I can swim, I can keep my head above the water,” she says. One of the many things she learned working on the subject was finding out about her own naiveté. “What shocked me most was that in the richest countries in the world, where there is money to buy organic dog food, and where there is money for the most eccentric things, such as bathing every day with donkey’s milk, there are people who didn’t have access to restrooms and there are people who can’t drink potable water. Discrimination exists in every country of the world, in every country there is a segment of forgotten population, marginalized and mistreated population. People who don’t have a voice, people who don’t count.”

Born in the post-dictatorship period, Catherine had a grandfather on her mother side who financed the resistance to the dictatorial regime (1926 to 1933) from exile, and learned that it was necessary to fight for democracy at home. “If, on one hand, we are fortunate enough to have been born into a family that provides us with a lot, we have money to eat and we have a school to go to, on the other hand, we have an obligation to give back to society. So I had both things at home: the need and willingness to give back, and the desire to fight for rights. I think that’s how it happened: an explosive mix.”

At the age of 47, married and mother of two children, the specialist says she loves cooking, and she can cook both Portuguese and international cuisine. “I do a lot and I’m very energetic, I think cooking is a way to calm me down, to keep focused, and to relax.”

The issue of human rights was present since her young age. As a teenager, even before university, Catrina would go to the slums of her hometown, Lisbon, to help other young people do their homework. Her children, Mariana, 14, and Rodrigo, 16, follow in her footsteps. “My daughter is a feminist. Whenever they ask her to do a paper on someone, a famous chemist, a famous biologist, someone or something famous, she says: “Oh, mom, we have to find a famous female biologist, a famous female chemist, a famous female mathematician. This is a sure move. She already shows great interest in the field of international relations and human rights, and whenever she submits a paper, she tends towards that. I hope something like that remains, a little of this concept, of empathy, of compassion for others, for those who have a life worse than ours. So I hope, there’s no way of knowing it for sure”.

Content published in March 27, 2018

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