Health Is a Human Right, and Health Workers Are the Gatekeepers
On Human Rights Day, International Medical Corps reflects on the importance of health as a human right and shares examples from the frontlines, where its committed health workers help people whose lives have been ripped apart by conflict access health care.
After the unspeakable horrors of World War II, the international community came together at the United Nations and agreed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that each and every one of us has innate value, just by virtue of being alive. In theory, human rights apply equally to all people—everywhere, without distinction. In 1946, the right to health was specifically articulated in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Constitution, which set out that the highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being.
However, in our work on the frontlines of war and disaster, International Medical Corps is painfully aware that millions of people around the world—particularly in communities affected by conflict—find basic human rights devastatingly unattainable.
One of many rights taken away from those caught up in a humanitarian crisis is their right to health, including access to health care and the skilled health workers who provide it.
The right to health is protected in article 25 of the declaration and has been reaffirmed in other international treaties. Without good health, a person’s ability to exercise other rights crucial to self-fulfilment and dignity is curtailed. Viewed in this way, good health is a gateway to other rights—a prerequisite to everything from education to gender equality. And health workers are the gatekeepers.
Examples from the Frontlines
In Mersin, a city in south-eastern Turkey, committed International Medical Corps’ partner organization MSYD-ASRA assists Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have been forced from their homes due to relentless conflict, providing them with medical and mental health assistance, including rehabilitation services.
Earlier this year, health workers on the team provided Samir and Ali*, two young brothers from Iraq, with hearing aids. The boys are just two of the 34 million children around the world today who suffer from hearing loss—a silent crisis that keeps far too many children from school, from expressing themselves, from making friends and, with that, from reaching their true potential.
What might seem like a simple intervention has opened up a world of possibilities: Due to their hearing impairment—as well as a general lack of public resources for child refugees with special needs—the boys had not attended school. This changed as soon as the boys received and familiarised themselves with their new hearing aids. Just one example of how health care, and health workers, can be a gateway to other rights.
Meanwhile, in South Sudan, case workers like Sara Othow help survivors of gender-based violence—women and girls who, against the odds, are rebuilding after years of brutal civil war—find dignity again. This process begins with clinical care that, together with qualified emotional support, often leads to skills-training, which can later be paired with cash-based assistance to set up a business. These steps combine to make up the building blocks of a meaningful life, but it always starts with regaining physical and mental health.
For a mother-to-be, it begins with the right to antenatal care and a safe pregnancy and delivery. For the very youngest, it starts with a safe birth, followed by access to nutrition and vaccinations. Whether in the presence of a humanitarian crisis or not, the road to self-fulfillment begins with good health and skilled and supported health workers. For 35 years, International Medical Corps has partnered with health workers to help devastated communities rebuild and grow self-reliant—so we know that it can be done.
*The boys’ names have been changed to protect their identity.