To mark the International Day of Action for Women’s Health on May 28, Paul Hunt, former UN expert on the right to health, tells us about one special girl who inspired his work.
About a decade ago, I travelled to the north of Uganda, still a conflict-zone at that time. Accompanied by soldiers, we went off the beaten track to a sprawling, dusty camp for internally displaced people (IDP).
There I met someone who symbolized the deep injustice that arises when health-rights are denied. About 14 years old, she was sitting outside her small hut where she lived with her family. Some of her limbs were huge and sharply disproportionate to the rest of her body. She was suffering from a severely disfiguring disease called lymphatic filariasis – commonly known as elephantiasis.
She explained that she went to school but was mocked and bullied. She could not stand the abuse so she left school. This teenage girl was the victim of multiple human rights abuses: of the rights to health, education, and equality.
Governments – in the north and south – have a human rights responsibility to tackle these abuses. The pharmaceutical industry also has a human rights duty not to neglect poverty-related diseases.
The girl I met in Uganda was suffering from a “neglected disease”. Neglected diseases mainly afflict neglected communities. These diseases cause terrible pain and suffering to hundreds of millions of people. They are “neglected” because historically they have attracted little research and development.
I stumbled upon the existence of neglected diseases 25 years ago. I remember it vividly – a fusty UN library in Geneva. I was appalled by the injustice and hoped that one day I might be able to do something about them.
Years later, I was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health and I began to use a right to health “lens” to examine – to grasp – what’s going on in a country.
The right to health “lens” is a powerful instrument. It exposes disadvantage, entrenched injustice and inequality. So, as Rapporteur I picked up my right to health “lens” and looked at some countries. And there they were: neglected diseases.
With the help of the World Health Organization (WHO), I began to frame them as a human rights issue. Whenever possible, I wrote and talked about them, in the UN and beyond.
The International Day of Action for Women’s Health is important because of that word – action. Human rights are about action and implementation. They have to go beyond fine laws and be made real in clinics, hospitals, health systems, communities and so on.
We cannot achieve this without collaboration across disciplines and sectors. Health workers and human rights activists have to join forces and learn from each other. By working together, we can tackle neglected diseases, build good health systems and provide health services accessible to all.
Crucially, the right to health includes access to contraceptive information and services. Unmarried people, women who are not happy with the contraceptive method they are using, and disadvantaged groups who are commonly discriminated against by health providers all need access to these services.
The International Day of Action for Women’s Health can help to generate the vital collaboration that the right to health, including fair and impartial access to contraception, depends on.
When I am sitting in a comfortable human rights meeting, disconnected from the reality of those living in poverty, I try to bring to mind the girl I met in the IDP camp in northern Uganda.
We must not forget that the right to health has a major contribution to make. When health-rights are integrated into policies, they contribute to health gains for individuals and communities.
Everyone has the right to health, but people of different genders face different challenges in having this right realized. When women and girls don’t have control over their bodies and lives because of gender inequality, their rights are violated.
When a woman cannot access family planning information or contraception, her right to health is violated. When a girl is married far too young–young enrough that childbearing is dangerous–her right to health is violated. And when a rape survivor cannot access STI testing, medications, or safe abortion, her rights are violated.
Join Amnesty International’s My Body My Rights campaign to make sure that everyone, everywhere, has the right to make decisions about their bodies and their lives, and have their right to health fulfilled.