Health Meets Human Rights

By Andrews, Joseph L., Jr. | The Humanist, November-December 1997 | Go to article overview

Health Meets Human Rights


Andrews, Joseph L., Jr., The Humanist


What do doctors and lawyers have in common--besides lawsuits? Are there significant connections between the field of health--peopled by physicians, nurses, and public health specialists--and the field of human rights--peopled by civil rights lawyers, politicians, and activists?

Historically, there have been few recognized common bonds and little communication between health workers and human rights activists. Different perspectives, training, vocabularies, and methods, as well as frequent conflicts, have separated these two communities. However, the many interconnections are there, waiting to be explored.

In Uganda, public health workers discovered that the rate of HIV infections was increasing among married, monogamous women. Despite traditional public health measures--public and private health education and condom distribution--the infection rate continued to soar. A social analysis, which asked women what they thought was actually happening, revealed that many Ugandan women were not able to refuse their husband's unprotected sexual advances; the women feared beatings or being divorced at their husband's whim and abandoned without the protection of fair property rights laws.

Dr. Jonathan Mann, who witnessed this problem firsthand in 1988 as the founding director of the World Health Organization's Global Program on AIDS, says the fact that the women's refusal could result in physical harm or divorce implied that her "vulnerability to HIV was integrally connected with discrimination and unequal rights, involving property, marriage, divorce, and inheritance." Thus, traditional public health measures were doomed to failure.

After recognizing this relationship between HIV infections and human rights violations, a group of Ugandan women were encouraged to lobby effectively for marriage, property, and divorce laws more favorable to women. Eventually, the HIV infection rate in Ugandan wives decreased. It also spurred Mann to become a major proponent for research, understanding, and solutions based on the many linkages between health problems and human rights abuses.

At the end of 1997, Mann will leave his current professorial position at the Bagnaud Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, which opened only four years ago. But during that short time, he has helped focus the world's attention on the linkage between health and human rights by organizing two international conferences--one in 1994 and the other in 1996. …

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