30 Years of Human Rights

» 30 Years of Human Rights

In 2020 we celebrate the 30th anniversary of HealthRight International. Over the years, this organization has had many faces, but our mission has remained the same since day one: Health and human rights are inextricably linked, and we as a global society must ensure that all people can exercise this right. Since 1990, we have supported marginalized communities all over the world, and we want to share their stories with you. Below, you can explore 30 stories covering 30 years of human rights work. A new story will be added each week.

We hope you enjoy this historical exploration, may it inspire you to stand up for human rights in whichever way you can.


2013: Maternal and Neonatal Near Miss Reviews in Nepal

A woman in Nepali dress is holding a swaddled baby and looking at the camera

Sapara Rana with her baby after returning home

In 2013 HealthRight concluded a series of maternal and neonatal near miss reviews (MNNR) in selected areas of Nepal’s Arghakhanchi district. MNNRs study cases where maternal or neonatal death was narrowly avoided and use the lessons learned to prevent similar situations in the future. In rural Nepal, MNNR is a low-resource, high-impact strategy to improve maternal and newborn care.

We piloted these reviews to document and strengthen maternal and neonatal care in Nepal’s health system and reduce preventable maternal and neonatal deaths due to pregnancy complications. The project involved training maternal health practitioners, such as female Community Health Volunteers, Health Facility Operation and Management Committees, to participate in near miss reviews, which allowed critical data gathering that could guide health officials in understanding the causes of maternal and neonatal near-miss deaths.

2012: Maternity Waiting Homes in Kenya

Two women are standing in front of a concrete building, while some men construct a corrugated roof walkway to the front door

Finishing up construction of the Kapenguria Kiror

From 2006-2010 HealthRight was improving health outcomes for mothers and babies in Kenya through a project called Partnership for Maternal and Neonatal Health. At the time, high maternal mortality rates in rural Kenya were associated with the common practice of delivering children at home without receiving professional antenatal care. Even though many women knew the risks of this practice, they often faced barriers that prevented them from seeking professional help, such as travel distance to antenatal clinics and the amount of money and time these trips required.

In response, HealthRight worked with three facilities in West Pokot County to construct Maternity Waiting Homes called “kirors.” These kirors could accommodate mothers for free in a location close to a health center, where health workers could easily provide antenatal care and monitor the women as they awaited labor. The kirors were built at Ortum Mission Hospital, Kapenguria district hospital (pictured) and Kabichbich Health Centre. At any one time, each kiror could accommodate about 20 pregnant women.

2011: Liz and Steve Alderman are awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal

Liz and Steve Alderman are receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama

Liz and Steve Alderman receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama

On October 20, 2011 at the White House, Liz and Steve Alderman were awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest civilian honor in the nation, for their amazing work with the Peter C Alderman Foundation. Liz and Steve, along with 11 other recipients, were chosen by President Barack Obama from almost 6,000 public nominations for people who carried out exemplary deeds of service outside of their regular jobs.

When announcing the award, President Obama said: “This year’s recipients of the Citizen Medal come from different backgrounds, but they share a commitment to a cause greater than themselves. They exemplify the best of what it means to be an American, and I am honored to be able to offer them a small token of our appreciation.

2010: Hillary Clinton visits HealthRight in Vietnam

Hillary Clinton is receiving a bouquet from a group of smiling people

On July 22, 2010, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Smile of the Sun Center, a community center established by HealthRight and partners, for the signing of the U.S.-Vietnam Partnership Framework. In 2010, Vietnam was facing a growing HIV epidemic with an added strain of stigma and discrimination, preventing people living with HIV from receiving adequate care. This, coupled with systemic financial struggles among families, led to negative outcomes for children with HIV who often faced discrimination in school settings and were unable to prevail against the burden of their health and social situation.

“What we see here is the kind of comprehensive response that this disease demands,” Secretary Clinton said during her visit.

2009: DOW becomes HealthRight

Two men are holding a large banner announcing the celebration ceremony of Doctors of the World changing its name to HealthRight International

Our staff in Kenya hosted an event to celebrate the name change

“Health and human rights are inextricably linked” – Dr. Jonathan Mann

On February 23, 2009, Doctors of the World-USA changed its name to HealthRight International, a name that embodies the principles on which we were founded: that health is a human right, and that health and human rights are inextricably linked. The new name is closely linked to our founder, Dr. Jonathan Mann, often called the father of health and human rights. In addition, the name represents HealthRight’s commitment to promoting human rights in communities around the world.

2008: Dr. Rachel Lee

Dr. Rachel Lee

Dr. Rachel Lee

HealthRight’s Human Rights Clinic (HRC) recruits, trains, and deploys a network of volunteer physicians and mental health professionals who provide forensic evaluations, translating scars and symptoms into pivotal evidence for immigrants seeking asylum and other relief in the United States. One such clinician is Dr. Rachel Lee, pictured, a psychologist who first began volunteering with the HRC in 2007.

Following 9/11, Dr. Lee was disturbed by the US government’s use of torture at Guantanamo Bay and other detention sites. When she learned that psychologists had played a role in torturing prisoners at these sites, she was appalled that the American Psychological Association (APA) did not condemn this work. She withdrew her membership from the APA and joined a group of psychologists that organized to protest their inaction. Motivated to fight for the human rights of victims of torture, Dr. Lee reached out to HealthRight International to volunteer at the HRC.

2007: MAMA+ Ukraine

A woman is looking at the child she is holding in her arms

Galena and her daughter

By the late 2000s, as the primary mode of transmitting HIV shifted from injection drug use to sexual transmission, the HIV epidemic in Ukraine was spreading from marginalized populations, such as injection drug users and people in prisons, to the general population. With an estimated adult prevalence of 1.4%, it was one of the worst affected countries in Europe. Over 120,000 HIV+ women of reproductive age faced discrimination and stigma, fueled by a lack of information and health services. Tragically, almost one in five children born to HIV+ mothers in Ukraine were abandoned by, or separated from their mothers. For those who could stay together, the challenges of raising a child while living with HIV resulted in tremendous stress on the mothers and families.

2006: Sri Lanka

A community health volunteer is sitting at a table, addressing a crowd of about 40 people in a health education session

A community health volunteer is conducting a health education session

On December 26, 2004, a devastating tsunami struck parts of South Asia and East Africa. Sri Lanka suffered over 1,000 deaths and more than 500,000 people were displaced. After the initial disaster relief efforts subsided, HealthRight began its operations in partnershp with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Healthcare, Nutrition, and Uwa Wellassa Development to address the long-term medical needs of the affected communities.

After initial assessments missions, HealthRight began rehabilitating and renovating the Nakulugamuwa Hospital and Ranna Rural Hospitals in the Hambantota district, which were among the worst hit by the tsunami. In addition to rehabilitating wards and staff facilities, the renovations included handicap accessibility modifications throughout the hospitals, making them the first health facilities to comply with Sri Lanka’s new code on accessibility for people with physical disabilities. The hospitals were also equipped with much needed new furniture, medical equipment, medical supplies and cleaning supplies.

2005: Kenya

A woman is smiling at the camera while a physician is reading her blood oxygen level and two healthcare workers are looking on

A clinician in Kapenguria is reading a patient’s blood oxygen levels

In western Kenya, the rural district of West Pokot was facing limited access to health services and a heavy burden of health problems. In 2005, at least 28,000 people in the district were estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS, in addition to the high maternal and neonatal mortality rates and frequent malaria outbreaks. To address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, HealthRight adapted the Indiana University’s Academic Model for Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS in the Kapenguria District Hospital, which serves over 350,000.

2004: Nepal

A women dressed in traditional Nepali clothes sitting in front of an old PC

Samjhana Kachhyapathi

In 2004, an estimated 12,000 girls and women were trafficked into India from Nepal. They were coerced into forced labor and sex work, resulting in countless human rights violations. Even after they returned to Nepal, they were often unable to rejoin their families. Suffering from mental and physical trauma, potentially being HIV-positive, and facing the stigmatization from Nepali society, survivors of trafficking were unable to find employment or adequate health care. In addition, many were vulnerable to being trafficked again.

2003: Romania

A group of women are standing in a circle, writing on notepads

Carmen (in red) is conducting a community health survey

In 2003, Romania had the highest number of tuberculosis (TB) cases in the Balkan region and the highest number of pediatric TB cases in all of Europe. Increased poverty, insufficient training for TB care, and discrimination against TB patients undermined efforts to prevent and treat the disease. In addition, certain groups, such as Roma people and prisoners, were discriminated against and labeled as undeserving of medication. Many people who could not afford to travel to health facilities to obtain medicine were labeled as “noncompliant” and were dropped from the system without a follow-up.

That year, HealthRight launched a program to address these health disparities. After collecting baseline data on TB knowledge and attitudes among marginalized populations like TB patients, Roma, prisoners, and people living in poverty, HealthRight established a partnership with a Roma NGO to strengthen the capacity and reach of education among Roma communities.

2002: The Thai-Burmese Border

A mother and her baby are sitting next to a health worker who is holding up a paper with the baby's footprints

A health worker in Thailand registering the birth of a baby

From 1962 to 2011, Myanmar, formally known as Burma, was controlled by a military government that resulted in deep internal conflict and human rights abuses, especially for ethnic minorities. What arose was a flow of over one million ethnic minority migrants to nearby Thailand. Over 50% of these migrants were not officially recognized as refugees, meaning they did not receive basic protection from poverty, disease, and violence. However, even those with work permits lacked international protection and lived in refugee-like circumstances. In the early 2000s, an estimated 100,000 Burmese worked for illegally low wages in factories near the Thai-Burma border.

2001: Peter C. Alderman

Peter C Alderman

Peter Alderman

On September 11, 2001, a series of terrorist attacks struck several parts of the US, resulting in almost 3,000 deaths. Among the lives lost was Peter C. Alderman, who was working for Bloomberg in the World Trade Center when the planes struck the towers. He was 25.

Peter grew up in Scarsdale, NY, graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1994 and from American University in 1999. He was sweet, smart, charismatic and loyal. His family and friends are always reminded of his infectious smile and positivity. “When you were around Peter, it made you a better person,” a friend recalled, ”not because of anything he said or did, but simply because his mere presence brought you joy.” Peter was able to brighten up a room instantly and make people feel like they truly mattered. It is those memories that his family and friends continue to hold dear to their hearts.

2000: Vietnam

A man is kneeling in front of a family while explaining something

In the late 1990s, Vietnam struggled with economic reform, causing a relocation of resources away from rural health care and social services. As a result, ethnic minorities and women and children in mountainous northern provinces suffered disproportionately from preventable diseases and poor maternal and reproductive health. The remote location, lack of information, and poor transportation made it difficult for these communities to access healthcare. To receive medical treatment, villagers sometimes had to walk up to four hours to reach the nearest health center. In addition, village health workers often lacked the necessary medical knowledge and equipment to provide adequate care. In 1999, only 49% of births in the region were attended by a trained midwife – the majority of births occurred at home without professional assistance.

1999: South Africa

A young woman is standing, talking to an older woman who is sitting

A TB treatment supporter is speaking to a patient

In 1999, South Africa was undergoing a healthcare crisis as simultaneous HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) epidemics spread. Approximately 4.2 million South Africans were infected with HIV – more than ten percent of the nation’s population. At the time, 40 to 50% of all patients infected with TB were thought to be co-infected with HIV in South Africa, and TB was the leading cause of death in AIDS patients. Under apartheid, South African public health services were largely reserved for white populations, so the post-apartheid government was tasked with expanding the healthcare system to serve the entire South African population, many of whom had been historically neglected. The TB and AIDS epidemic quickly exacerbated the available resources and left many people unable to receive treatment.

1998: Kosovo War

A doctor is examining a young man with a stethoscope inside a tent

A HealthRight doctor is examining a young Kosovar refugee

In early 1998, rising tensions between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo Liberation Army took a turn for the worse as the Kosovo War began. During this time, Kosovar Albanians faced extreme discrimination and many were displaced from their homes, causing them to lose their jobs and access to health services. The violence of 1998-99 intensified Kosovo’s healthcare and human rights crisis, making HealthRight’s work in the region more important than ever.

Since 1992, HealthRight has addressed critical gaps in health care – providing direct medical services to all Kosovars, regardless of ethnic background, reaching over 250,000 children with basic immunizations, and strengthening the overall health care infrastructure through training, health strategy planning, and provision of equipment and supplies.

1997: Dr. Victoria Sharp

Dr. Victoria Sharp sitting on the floor holding a baby, surrounded by women and children

Vicki in Chiapas in 2003

In 1997, when Dr. Victoria Sharp was appointed Director of the Center for Comprehensive Care at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York, she had already been with HealthRight for four years.

Vicki first contacted HealthRight when she heard about the Haitian refugee crisis in 1993, to see how she could assist the detainees, and was crucial in the organization’s push to bring these refugees to safety.

Aside from working with the HIV-positive Haitian refugees in Guantanamo Bay, Vicki’s earliest days at HealthRight were devoted to TB-affected Albanians living in Kosovo and building health systems for indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico. She also served on overseas assignments to Macedonia to assist refugees from Kosovo; to Russia to further investigate problems of at-risk youth; to Thailand to provide health care to Burmese refugees; and to Kenya to help establish a comprehensive HIV clinic.

1996: Kosovo

A woman examining a young girl with shaved head using a stethoscope

Dr. Lisa Adams examining a young girl in Kosovo

In the heart of the Balkans, in the southern portion of former Yugoslavia, lay one of the most underdeveloped regions in Europe. At the time, Kosovo had the fastest growing population and highest infant mortality rate in Europe. It also had one of the highest rates of infectious diseases in Europe, particularly tuberculosis (TB), with an incidence of 77 per 100,000 people (compared to 46.5 per 100,000 in New York City at the height of its epidemic in 1992). The ongoing mistrust of the official health system and worsening ethnic tensions made access to healthcare for TB difficult.

1995: Russia

A group of teens and children sitting on a curb

A group of street-involved youth in St. Petersburg

Thirteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s social institutions had declined to the point of collapse. As increasing numbers of families slid into unemployment and poverty, the number of children and youths seeking to escape from the accompanying cycles of neglect and abuse grew. Many of these children ended up institutionalized under the permanent custody of the state in orphanages. Far from leading them to better lives, institutionalization set these children on a destructive path. Our research showed that, of the 15,000 teenagers in Russia who were graduated from orphanages in one year, 10% later ended their lives in suicide, 20% lived on the streets, and 33% went to prison.

1994: Chiapas, Mexico

Four nurse auxiliaries from Chiapas sitting on a bench, smiling

Four newly trained Nurse Auxiliaries in Chiapas

In 1994, HealthRight began supporting the work of the Hospital San Carlos (HSC), in Chiapas, Mexico. Run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul since 1976, the hospital was the only source of health care for an underserved populations of thousands of rural indigenous people in highland Chiapas.

Indigenous communities in Chiapas had long been marginalized, suffering disproportionately from tuberculosis and other preventable infectious diseases. Most of the patients who came to HSC did not speak Spanish – only their indigenous languages Tzeltal or Tojolabal – while doctors and nurses spoke only Spanish. This communication barrier between patients and providers added to the exclusion and inequality that indigenous patients already faced. The UN and other human rights observers have documented the harmful effect of this scenario on indigenous women all over Central America. In Mexico, for example, indigenous women have been sterilized or given Caesarean sections without explanation or consent. Mexican physicians often claimed that the women could not speak Spanish and thus the procedure could not be explained to them.

1993: The Human Rights Clinic was founded

A physician is examining a man's arm

An HRC client is receiving physical evaluation for signs of injuries

Through HealthRight’s work with Haitian refugees who were being detained indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay (see 1992) – documenting the asylum seekers’ trauma and advocating on their behalf – the Human Rights Clinic (HRC) was born. Founded in the Bronx in 1993, the program began as a partnership with the North Central Bronx Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center’s Residency Program in Primary Care and Social Internal Medicine.

The HRC recruits, trains, and deploys a network of volunteer physicians and mental health professionals who provide forensic evaluations, translating scars and symptoms into pivotal evidence for immigrants seeking asylum and other relief in the United States.

1992: Haitian Refugee Crisis and Guantanamo Bay

A painting of Haitian refugees detained in a camp in Guantanamo, Cuba

A painting of Haitian refugees detained in a camp in Guantanamo, Cuba

One of HealthRight’s earliest projects came out of the Haitian refugee crisis of the early 90s. Following a coup d’état in Haiti in September 1991, the new military regime began persecuting the former president’s followers and other dissenters, causing thousands to flee Haiti. By February 1992, the US Coast Guard had picked up over 14,000 refugees and detained them in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Beginning in May 1992, most refugees were repatriated to Haiti, while about one third received asylum in the US. However, 270 HIV+ refugees and their family members who had been granted asylum were barred from entering the US because of their HIV status and remained in Guantanamo Bay. “These refugees lived in deplorable conditions, were subjected to violence and repression by the US military, deprived of proper medical care, and left without any legal recourse of rights,” wrote migration scholar Karma Chávez.

1991: Doctors of the World-USA

Photo of people sitting at a presentation featuring the Doctors of the World logo

A presentation from the early days of DoW-USA

DoW-USA was the US branch of Médecins du monde, a humanitarian organization originally formed in 1980 by Bernard Kouchner. Jonathan Mann sought to expand upon DoW’s model to focus on linking health and human rights.

When Dr. Mann founded the organization, it had one or two paid staff and about five board members. During this time, meetings were sometimes chaotic and disorganized, but the organization worked tirelessly to foster collaboration between clinicians, public health leaders, and community organizations.

1990: Dr. Jonathan Mann founds HealthRight

Photo of Dr. Jonathan Mann

Dr. Jonathan Mann

“AIDS cannot be stopped in any one country unless it is stopped in all countries,” Dr. Jonathan Mann wrote in a 1987 report on the WHO Global Programme on AIDS, which he had established just ten months earlier. At the time, he did not know that he would part ways with the organization within three years to pursue independent solutions for the human rights calamities created by the AIDS pandemic.

Jonathan Mann received his undergraduate education at Harvard College, graduating in 1969, before earning his MD at Washington University School of Medicine in 1974. Following medical school, he worked as an epidemiologist in New Mexico for the US Public Health Service and the New Mexico Health Services Division.