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Open Access Research article

'Issues of equity are also issues of rights': Lessons from experiences in Southern Africa

Leslie London

Author Affiliations

Health and Human Rights Division, School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town Health Sciences Faculty, Anzio Rd, Observatory, 7925, South Africa

BMC Public Health 2007, 7:14  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-14

Published: 26 January 2007



Human rights approaches to health have been criticized as antithetical to equity, principally because they are seen to prioritise rights of individuals at the expense of the interests of groups, a core tenet of public health. The objective of this study was to identify how human rights approaches can promote health equity.


The Network on Equity in Health in Southern Africa undertook an exploration of three regional case studies – antiretroviral access, patient rights charters and civic organization for health. A combination of archival reviews and stakeholder interviews were complemented with a literature review to provide a theoretical framework for the empirical evidence.


Critical success factors for equity are the importance of rights approaches addressing the full spectrum from civil and political, through to socio-economic rights, as well as the need to locate rights in a group context. Human rights approaches succeed in achieving health equity when coupled with community engagement in ways that reinforce community capacity, particularly when strengthening the collective agency of its most vulnerable groups. Additionally, human rights approaches provide opportunities for mobilising resources outside the health sector, and must aim to address the public-private divide at local, national and international levels.


Where it is clear that rights approaches are predicated upon understanding the need to prioritize vulnerable groups and where the way rights are operationalised recognizes the role of agency on the part of those most affected in realising their socio-economic rights, human rights approaches appear to offer powerful tools to support social justice and health equity.