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2016 Annual Marsha Lilien Gladstein Visiting Professor Lecture: Alicia Ely Yamin

BY Johanna Debari


In introducing Professor Alicia Ely Yamin, the 2016 Marsha Lilien Gladstein Visiting Professor, Human Rights Institute Director Kathryn Libal stated that she “exemplifies what it means to be a scholar and an activist.” The audience for the annual Gladstein lecture, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, came to know the truth of those words. Yamin’s lecture, “Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter,” which drew from her book of the same title, focused on using human rights-based approaches to fulfilling the right to health through story-telling that reveals the impact and value of human rights for individuals and communities.

Professor Yamin began her lecture openly professing the personal nature of her book and thus her lecture. Testifying about having a miscarriage while working in New York City, she contrasted her own experience to that of a woman in Mexico whom she saw miscarry at a similar stage of pregnancy but who almost died. She said “because I was a white, middle class woman living in New York City, and she was not, that made all the difference.” Some suffering, such as that experienced by the Mexican woman, is caused by the injustice of other people’s decisions, and those who are marginalized endure the consequences. “The way we think about things changes what we do about things,” Yamin said, and the way we see natural versus unnatural, just and unjust, God’s will or an act of fate, in different parts of the world shapes how we respond to such suffering.

In conceptualizing suffering and the right to health, dignity matters. For Professor Yamin, “dignity” is a universal concept with contingent interpretations that encompass a unique sense of self-governance, agency, and life plans. The human rights framework “asks what is required of us as ethical individuals in an increasing globalized world,” and creates standards to which we as a global community can be held accountable. With this, Professor Yamin called for a rethinking of human rights, from seeing economic factors like grinding poverty as “background conditions” to understanding them as structural determinants of health. Yamin urged the audience to challenge “the hegemonic grasp neoliberalism exercises over our lives.”

With rethinking human rights entails rethinking approaches to health. When we openly acknowledge the right to health as having special moral importance, it gains social influence. By emphasizing power relations more than the behavioral or biological aspects of health, we can reframe global health crises in ways that afford individuals the agency and power to call upon the “duty bearers” (read: states and the international community) to respect their rights. By creating a circle of accountability, linking policies and laws; budgets; and national plans and programs to remedies and international law, we can break down the structural barriers individuals often face in challenging institutionalized power dynamics.

Professor Yamin concluded: “We should not be paralyzed by the daunting nature of the state of our world…Human rights encodes a different understanding of being human, and rights represent the possibility of social reconstruction and redistribution of power. Without social accountability, rights have no meaning.”