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March 4, 2002

New course combines public health, human rights

By Rachel Robertson


When one thinks of human rights, public health is not one of the first things that come to mind. However, „Health and Human Rightsš is indeed the name of a course taught in the Rollins School of Public Health.

„One of the things we notice about human rights is that we usually only hear about them after they have been violated,š said Dabney Evans, health educator in public health and one of three faculty members teaching the course. „That doesn‚t make sense from a public health perspective because public health is really about prevention and population-based health.š

Evans‚ colleagues in teaching the course are Alan Hinman, adjunct professor in public health, and Tim Holtz, assistant professor of family and prevetative medicine.

The relatively new subdiscipline of human rights in public health involves using international human rights documents (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) to serve as guides for public health, addressing the rights of individuals and the responsibility of state actors (nation states) to uphold and fulfill those rights.

From the public health perspective, it is important to create an environment in which individuals can be healthy. „When you think about public health, you think about coming at things from the front end,š Evans said. „Of course, we have to address violations that have taken place ∑ but we also want to think about preventing those kinds of abuses in the first place.š

The course gives the history and background of human rights and examines issues related to health and human rights, with the goal of raising awareness in studentsųsome of whom might be planning public health programs someday. Issues addressed in the course include health as a human right, treating victims of human rights violations, equality of public health, and the effects of „globalizationš on health and human rights.

Last year, Evans recognized the lack of such a course in the public health curriculum and worked to get it added. When the course became available to students last spring, only five signed up. This year enrollment jumped to 18 students, with others sitting in.

„It was really thrilling to realize that we quadrupled our enrollment in one year because the relationship between health and human rights is something I get really excited about,š Evans said.

Her students also recognize the importance of what they‚re learning. „The class consistently challenges me to critically consider how public health and human rights correlate to one another,š said public health student Heather Gardner. „This process is an essential part of my public health training.š

Classmate Audrey Lenhart said, „I found it to be one of the most important classes I‚ve taken as a student at Rollins.š

It is Evans‚ hope that her students will apply their classroom knowledge to real-life situations in the field. „If we can teach people what [human] rights are and how they apply to what they do,š Evans said, „then hopefully we can see some changes in those rights being fulfilled and upheld.š

Evans also is part of an interdisciplinary group working to develop a human rights institute at Emory; others involved in the project include Abdullahi An-Na‚im, Candler Professor of Law; David Davis, associate professor of political science; and Jim Fowler, Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development and director of the Center for Ethics.

The proposed institute would allow graduate students from various disciplines to get a specialization in human rights and would also offer faculty training in how to incorporate human rights issues into other University courses.

As a first step in the effort to build a human rights institute the group has organized a speaker series, bringing in experts on human rights to speak at Emory throughout the spring semester. The purpose of the series is to contact other faculty from different disciplines and promote interest in the issues of human rights and also to begin building a core faculty for the institute.