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April 19, 2006

Combating Poverty Should be a Grassroots Effort

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Mary Robinson, first woman president of Ireland

When Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland, was a small girl, she first saw the impact of health care while going with her father, a doctor, on medical visits to poor patients in the west of Ireland. These childhood impressions framed Robinson’s views of health care. “On those trips, I learned that health care is more than just a service available to some; it is a fundamental human right for everyone,” said Robinson, who served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002.

Robinson was the keynote speaker of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health 2006 Annual Dr. Leroy E. Burney Lecture on April 11. In her presentation, “Realizing Rights in Practical Ways: Tackling Poverty in Africa,” she addressed the need for grassroots efforts to establish integrated health care systems to combat poverty.

“Currently, there is a health and human rights chasm between recognition and action, which I believe shames us all. Human rights are the framework. They should be a model in order to tackle poverty in Africa,” said Robinson, who is now president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home…unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

~ Eleanor Roosevelt, 1953, when making remarks to the United Nations

In Africa and other developing regions, according to Robinson, women are increasingly recognized as the bedrock of the family, community and economy. If government leaders address the issues raised by women, poverty and other societal issues can be resolved. Robinson specifically noted Africa’s need for clean water and access to properly-trained health care providers, well-maintained medical facilities and essential medications.

“As a vehicle for sustainable development, rich and poor nations must undertake extensive reforms and find more constructive ways of working together,” Robinson is quoted as saying on the Realizing Rights webpage.

Not only do government officials need to be consistently reminded of the conventions, protocols and treaties they ratify, but local governments, according to Robinson, also need to educate their communities about human rights. She discussed the need for governments to encourage native-born health care workers to return to Africa, part time or full time, to help strengthen local health systems.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Lowe or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.