Women's Health

Meet Our Featured Guest Columnist: Jeanne Ward

Psychotherapist Jeanne Ward works to prevent sexual violence against women and children (gender-based violence). Her expertise is in conflict situations, and she has worked in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. She has investigated gender-based violence and support services in over twenty countries, and has published a photo-essay book to raise awareness of the problem. In 2007 she left Nairobi in order to teach a class on international social policy at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Q: What does "health and human rights" mean to you?

A: Ensuring the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities is inextricably linked to promoting and protecting universal human rights.   The importance of recognizing and addressing this link between health and human rights comes into sharp relief around the issue of gender-based violence (GBV).   In the early days of GBV programming in complex emergencies--around the mid-1990s--reproductive health activists were at the forefront of developing services for survivors, and those of us who are now working to improve GBV-related prevention and response initiatives in conflict-affected settings around the world have much to thank these pioneers for putting GBV on the humanitarian agenda.  At minimum, the intersection of the fields of reproductive health and GBV allowed for a greater understanding of the physical and mental health impacts of violence against women and girls, including STIs, reproductive tract trauma, unwanted pregnancy and complications associated with unsafe abortions, somatic complaints, depression and suicide.  However,  as GBV programs expanded in conflict zones across Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia in the late 1990s, it became evident that any long-term efforts to  improve the safety, security, and well-being of women and girls affected by or at risk of GBV must move beyond the provision of health care to include a wide variety of services and strategies, such as legal aid and psychosocial care.  Most importantly, combatting GBV requires challenging the structural inequalities between men and women that not only make women vulnerable to abuse, but also inhibit them from speaking out about it  and accessing support.  This is where the principle of universal human rights plays a key role:  a rights-based approach to GBV programming shifts the primary focus from the remedial or palliative care that defines the conventional "medical model"  or needs-based approach, to emphasize initiatives that seek to hold states accountable for investing in broad-based measures that support the fundamental rights of women and girls to be free from violence.   While the provision of direct services is critical in responding to the needs of individual survivors, these services will have little impact in settings where patriarchal attitudes and customs explicitly promote or implicitly condone the perpetuation of violence against women.  Reducing GBV involves encouraging fundamental social change that supports women's human rights as well their equal participation in economic and social development.     Thus, the lessons of GBV programming are that there can be no health for women and girls without human rights.