By: Jennifer C. Sarrett, PhD
One of the major health related themes throughout the work of these defenders is access to appropriate health care. Perhaps most closely related to this theme is the work of Dr. Wan Yanhai, a prominent HIV/AIDS activist in China. Despite being detained three times and tortured in prison, he continues to fight for health care access for all individuals diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, including and especially marginalized populations such as sex workers, drug users, and the LGBTQ population. Limited access to health care is not only a problem for those diagnosed, but, along with poverty and a growing sex and drug trade, contributes to the rapid spread of the virus across the country. Government prosecution led to Dr. Wan Yanhai fleeing China for the United States in 2010.
In Russia, Anastasia Smirnova is working against recent national laws that penalize “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” and permit the prosecution of LGBT groups and individuals as well as lead to a rise in violent hate crime against sexual minorities. In a 2013 Country Report on Human Rights Practices of the country of Russia, the US Department of State noted that the “restriction of the rights of the LGBT community, migrants, and other minorities coincided with a marked increase in violent attacks against these groups.” The report also noted “medical practitioners reportedly continued to limit or deny LGBTQ persons health services due to intolerance and prejudice.”
The exhibit also profiles Sussan Tahmasebi, whose work focuses on women’s rights in Iran, including reproductive and health services for Iranian women. She is a founding member of the One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws Campaign (a.k.a. Change for Equality), which collects signatures in Iran in support of a change to discriminatory laws against women. To this work, she brings her background in working for American NGOs focused on reproductive and health issues of underserved communities, which has doubtless influenced her current focus on obtaining compensation for bodily injury or death for Iranian women.
As these issues demonstrate, threats to bodily harm are another critical health theme that runs throughout the work of these activists. Dr. Denis Mukwege is an amazing defender whose work addresses bodily violence on women. As a gynecologist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the “rape capital of the world,” he has become an expert in the internal damages resulting from gang-rape and sexual assault. He has treated thousands of women in horrific states and is passionate about ending this violence. Dr. Mukwere has spoken out widely against “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war,” which has led to both talks of a Nobel Peace Prize and an assassination attempt in 2012.
Perhaps the most critical threat to bodily harm is that of genocide, the memory of which Freddy Mutanguha, who lost both parents and four sisters in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, is working to preserve. Mr. Mutahguha is the country director of Rwanda and regional Africa strategy lead for the Aegis Trust, a NGO using research, education, and the dissemination of information to eradicate genocide. The mass killings that comprise genocide do not exist in a vacuum; they are preceded by years of discrimination and abuse. Mr. Mutahguha was a teenager during the Rwandan genocide and recounts widespread imposed hunger that occurred in the months leading up to the killings and the dehumanization of the Tutsis. The fear and deprivation that accompanies genocide leave survivors with a host of bodily and psychological concerns. Mr. Mutahnguah is dedicated to preserving the memories of genocide to foster respect for the survivors and their innocence.
A final theme in all of theses important figures’ work is justice, which is central to Sister Consuelo Moreles’ activism in Mexico. As the founder of Ciudadanos en Apoyo de Derechos Humanos, CADHAC (Citizens in Support of Human Rights), she has directly impacted the documentation and prosecution of human rights abuses, such as killings, torture, and ‘disappearances.’ Psychological health is central to the work of CADHAC, which is dedicated to providing psychological treatment and support groups for victims of Mexico’s security forces and cartels.
All of these individuals are leaders in reducing human rights abuse and, consequently, addressing the critical health concerns that result from these abuses. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes, the right to health care and nutrition is a basic human right. But, as these defenders demonstrate, health is intertwined with all efforts to gain and uphold human rights, from caring for chronic illness and addressing stigma to caring for individuals subject to violence. As you traverse the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, I encourage you to consider the role of health in human rights and find a deeper appreciation of the important work of these leaders of human rights.