About Dr. Aida Seif El-Dawla
Dr. Seif El-Dawla is a noted human rights spokesperson and activist. She is a founding member of several organizations including the Egyptian Association Against Torture, the New Woman Research Center, the Association for Health and Environmental Development, the El-Nadim Center for the Psychological Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Task Force Against Female Circumcision in Egypt.
On November 4, 2003 the international organization, Human Rights Watch bestowed its highest honor upon Dr. Seif El-Dawla for her courageous work against torture in Egypt. Representative of Human Rights Watch, Clarisa Bencomo, commented "Dr. Seif El Dawla’s steadfast commitment to combating torture and other human rights abuses is an inspiration to her fellow activists in Egypt and abroad. We hope that honoring Aida Seif El Dawla’s passion for justice will give courage to others to join in calling for an end to torture and impunity".
Dr. Seif El Dawla is noted for the central role she has played in overcoming obstacles to women’s liberation as a result of ineffective governmental policies. She has also been instrumental in creating services for victims of state violence, and in particular for female victims of all kinds of violence. Dr. Seif El Dawla is an active advocate against female genital mutilation.
Dr. Seif-al Dawla’s Address
The following is a transcription of Dr. Seif-al Dawla’s address:
If we define public health issues as issues that prevail in a certain context, whose causes, precipitating and associated factors are known, where intervention strategies have proved to be beneficial to the health of the individual on all levels of intervention (be) they primary, secondary or tertiary; and if we adopt the WHO’s definition of health of social, psychological and physical wellbeing of an individual, we would end up with a list of public health issues that cross throughout all stages of an individual’s life.
How is it best to address those health issues: As needs, services, recommendations, rights? Or as an integrated whole of all of the above.
A lead factory in one suburban district in Cairo was polluting the environment to the effects of significantly high serum lead levels in the blood of school children in the district. A primary health care team made the observation, suggested the research, actually carried out the research, published the findings and the recommendations and distributed them. And stopped there. That was in 1986. Today in 2004 the factory is still there, for it was not the responsibility of the heath team to lobby the local council, organize the local population or take the factory owner to court. The health team has identified the problem and what should be done. Doing it was someone else’s job.
Between 85 and 95 % of Egyptian women are exposed to female genital mutilation (FGM). A cross generational analysis of the practice shows that increasingly more doctors are performing the procedure where previously midwives and barbers were the ones doing it. Research on men revealed major lack of sexual education and unrealistic perceptions of the female anatomy and human sexual behavior. Still, decades ago as well as now most efforts address women, telling them what to do and what not to do, blaming the practice on their ignorance and illiteracy, overlooking the fact that FGM is a violation of their right to a life free of violence, to bodily integrity, to a nontraumatized sexuality and that this violation is practiced by parties who are powerful socially and hence their anger should be avoided. Women are told that they should stop FGM, in order not to bleed, not to get infections, not to contract AUDS. They are not told that it is their right not to be mutilated, for eventually they may challenge their violators.
Antenatal health care is another such paradox. Women should have antenatal care. In Egypt almost 2/3 of women don’t. Media messages once again talk to women, explaining the importance, threatening with the consequences of not receiving such care, blaming the reluctance, ignorance etc... And yet in every study on antenatal care “lack of access” stands out as a major challenge. It is however a challenge that is not met, because access has to do with health policy, with expenditure, with state priorities.
What can a health worker do in that regard? What should he or she do?
No matter how we formulate the approach to this subject whether it is public health as a human rights issue or human rights as a public health issue is a matter of preference of which entry point one would like to use to address the right of each and every individual to enjoy good health and to enjoy the resources, facilities, means to achieve, maintain, and reclaim good health in the case of disease.
This fact alone is important to underline the holistic nature of health, and any basic right for that matter, and to question the existing lack of incorporation of the different disciplines.
Specialization is important; I am not calling for the blurring of lines between the different approaches or disciplines, in our case health and human rights. However; specialization is important only as far as it ensures providing the best expertise available in addressing the different components of a project. Health for all is not a component. It is a project and a very ambitious and strategic one. It is not the concern ever of a single group. It cannot be achieved through the efforts of health providers alone. Trying to do that would be like trying to prepare a meal in the absence of several of its ingredients.
Let me try to elaborate that through a few examples:
Good nutrition, vaccination, child development monitoring, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, reproductive health issues in adulthood, both for men and women are all public health issues.
A health orientation alone would advocate the necessary nutritive requirements, the timetable for vaccinations, the signs and milestones of child development that should be monitored etc... However, an activist orientation to these issues would not stop at the listing, awareness raising or training. It should develop and work towards making available all other ingredients of the recipe: economic resources, legislative and political support, policy change etc.. It is not enough to tell women how they should feed their children if they have no access to the food. It is of no meaning to stress the importance of antenatal care if it is beyond the economic, cultural or even geographic needs of women. A health activist is therefore not only concerned with identifying the “what” but also the “how”. They should not only “preach” the “how”. They should lead the way:
Why is this important?
Addressing health as a human rights issue is beneficial for the health movement.
It identifies health as a right
Right means entitlement i.e. there is a body whose job it is to secure this right
As a right health, is not negotiable, it is universal, it cannot be postponed.
As a right health, converts consumers from a passive service receiving group into an active right demanding group.
Second it is beneficial for the human rights movement
a. balancing the relation between the civil and political rights (more focus now) and
the socioeconomic rights (mostly neglected)
2. Reclaiming human rights back to its original constituency which is each and every human being.
Exemplifying human rights activism as an elitist - even if activist - profession restricted to those who understand the complicated jargon of the human right (contentious) and who have them in all kinds of sizes in their fancy offices and returning it - as a tool of struggle - to where its principles were originally derived from - to those who should enjoy them - the people.
Organizations took an initiative in that regard by translating reproductive health issues into human right agendas. It is a start from which we can draw several lessons. I believe we should use those lessons to build a health rights movement which would hopefully inspire other activities working on different aspects of our livehood.