Public Health Nursing Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 97–98 0737-1209/© 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. doi: 10.1111/phn.12107


A Human Rights Approach: The Work of Public Health Nurses In our many roles as public health nurses, we apply a human rights approach, each of us in our way contributing to important social goals. Whether providing care for vulnerable populations (prisoners, immigrants, and low-income urban communities), developing/implementing programs to provide services to these populations, or teaching students to understand the social roots of health disparities, we are applying Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, nd). “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.” The Declaration stands to this day as the most widely recognized statement of the rights to which every person on our planet is entitled. I like to reflect on this approach when I am doing work whose impact seems to be very far off, that is, those many small tasks and multiple responsibilities in our day-to-day existence that are necessary to accomplish anything of significance. These tasks and responsibilities all contribute to a human rights approach that involves many people around the world. This is one of the reasons why conferences are so important and travel is so great —we get to meet other people who are doing similar work, who are all contributing in their own concrete ways, to a broadly acknowledged, important social goal. Human rights issues have received consistent attention from Public Health Nursing, including a recent article by Luba and Oden (2013) and a slightly

older one by our public health nursing leaders Easley and Allen (2007). These articles make it clear that human rights are a modern set of individual and collective rights that have been formally promoted and protected through international and domestic law since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They tell us about the important connection between the Declaration and guides to ethical nursing practices, such as the ANA Code of Ethics (http://www., the Principles of the Ethical Practice of Public Health ( CMSuploads/Principles-of-the-Ethical-Practice-ofPH-Version-2.2-68496.pdf), or the Scope and Standards of Public Health Nursing ( lth-Nursing-2nd.aspx). From them, we also learn about emergent challenges to human rights that we will be facing in the immediate future, such as genetics and environmental change, as well as the ongoing, persistent affronts of poverty, the HIV epidemic, and war and ethnic cleansing. Less explicit in most articles, however, is the idea that essentially all of our work as public health nurses is framed by a human rights approach. While familiar to nurses around the globe, thinking about our work from a human rights approach does not always come easily to Americans. For example, in South Africa, Human Rights Day is celebrated on March 21st as a major holiday, in remembrance of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in which police killed 69 people taking part in a protest against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The United Nations has declared December 10th Human Rights Day, and this is the day that the Noble Peace Prize is awarded. While we have no such national day of recognition in the United States, we should be no less aware of the importance of human rights, how they undergird and are necessary precursors to health, and all of the work that we do. People cannot be healthy if they fear or are victims of torture and death. They cannot be healthy if they are



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starving or on the verge of starving or watching their children starve. They cannot be healthy if they are homeless or have no hope of education. They cannot be healthy if they fear being imprisoned for who they are or what they say. Whenever I am in New York City, I try to pay a visit to the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt in Riverside Park. As the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, she was the driving force in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arguably her most important legacy. I believe that this quote from her 1958 speech on the tenth anniversary of the declaration reflects much of the daily work that we do as public health nurses: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.

March/April 2014

Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” This is what we do. This is what you do. Your contribution to improving human rights makes the world a better place. Carry on! Patricia J. Kelly Kansas City, MO

References Easley, C., & Allen, C. (2007). A critical intersection: Human rights, public health nursing and nursing ethics. Advances in Nursing Science, 30, 367–382. Luba, L., & Oden, T. (2013). Public health nursing, ethics and human rights. Public Health Nursing, 30, 231–238. United Nations. (nd). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.

A human rights approach: the work of public health nurses.

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