Engaging with Health Rights in the Field and Closer to Home

Photo courtesy of the David J. Sencer CDC Museum

By Carmel Williams, PhD

Now in its 25th year of publication, the Harvard FXB journal, Health and Human Rights, has just published its June issue. It is a feat for a journal to not just survive the economic and academic climates of 25 years, but to hold a position of leadership in the field. Because that is what our journal does. Jonathan Mann launched the first issue because, he wrote, he recognised the need “to inform and expand the space within which ideas about the intersection between health and human rights can venture forth into the world.” (Vol 1, Issue 1) In the quarter century since, much has been done at international, national, and local levels to develop and reflect the understanding that health and human rights are not just two disciplines that intersect; rather, there is a human right to health. The journal has accompanied scholars and practitioners through the development of the discipline, offering the space to critique, debate, reflect and publish evidence on the right to health and its role in addressing global health inequities.

Our latest issue continues this tradition. It presents 27 articles across two special topics, plus a general section. The first special section interrogates ethical issues arising from global health fieldwork, from a right to health perspective. The guest editors of this section, from Agnes Scott College, the Task Force for Global Health, and Emory University, define global health fieldwork as program work, research, and evaluation – all of which aim to promote and protect health rights. They state, “… we must more fully consider the asymmetries embedded in global health practice – imbalances of power, access to resources, and decision making – many of which come to a head in the context of fieldwork.” At the heart of all human rights lies the principle of equality; hence our need to focus on the negative impact of power imbalances that are so often manifest in health, and especially in global health fieldwork.

These asymmetries affect the vulnerable and marginalised people the most, including women. Several of the papers in this issue look at how women experience the denial of their human rights including health rights – not just local women but also women field workers and researchers.  Which leads to a call for action: “Global health must apportion some of our emphases on equity and the rights to health and safe living and working conditions to ourselves, ensuring that these rights are attainable for those engaged in global health work, too.”

Sarah Willen of the University of Connecticut introduces three papers invoking human rights in the United States, two of which engage with CDC’s museum exhibition (2013-14) titled, surprisingly, “Health is a Human Right.”

The third paper examines violations to the right to water in Flint and Detroit where citizen science has engaged residents in articulating – and quantifying – their human rights demands.

In this issue, the journal continues its tradition of bringing real life meaning to the right to health. Fittingly, Willen concludes: art and citizen engagement spark creative thinking and help expand public imaginings of how human rights can make a difference for health.

Dr. Carmel Williams is the executive editor of the Health and Human Rights Journal. To read the latest issue of Health and Human Rights, click here.