March 14, 2007 — On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document which was never enacted in the United States.
More than 50 years later, activist Byllye Avery is using that document to advocate for universal health care in the hope of a major change in human rights.
"Everyone has the right to receive adequate, accessible and high-quality health care — right down to the people who have no address," Avery said, addressing a crowd of more than 60 people, mostly women, gathered Tuesday at the Divi Carina Resort.
The conference participants sought to answer the question, "Human Rights in the Virgin Islands: Why Does it Matter?" This aptly named discussion was hosted by V.I. Perinatal, Inc. and the V.I. Commission on Women.
"Virgin Islands health statistics are bleak, alarming and deserve our full attention," said Sonia Boyce, chairperson of the commission. Boyce called for a "unified approach by all citizens."
Avery is the founder of National Black Women's Health Imperative, an organization dedicated to improving the health status of black women worldwide. She has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for Social Contribution and the Essence Award for Community Service; the Academy of Science Institute of Medicine's Gustav O. Lienhard Award for the Advancement of Health Care, and the Grassroots Realist Award by the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.
In 1995 she received the Dorothy I. Height Lifetime Achievement Award and the President's Citation of the American Public Health Association. In 1998 Business and Professional Women presented her with the New Horizons Award, and she accepted a Leadership Award from the University of Florida's School of Medicine.
As the president and founder of the Avery Institute for Social Change, Avery travels around the world galvanizing grassroots women's organizations to fight for human rights, especially the right of universal health care.
One of the bases of her talks is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to "a standard of living adequate for .. health and well-being."
The document was enacted during the Roosevelt administration, Avery said, but certain factions in the United States did not want the document implemented. "They pushed the mute button on human rights," Avery said. Activists then turned to civil rights, she continued, but civil rights did not address housing, education or health insurance. "But human rights would have," Avery said.
There are many issues that violate a person's human rights, Avery noted: The denial of a women's control of reproductive rights and the right of the terminally ill to decide when to die, without court intervention.
Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom from want and fear, she said, are all human rights.
Avery said because the document is unrealized, the U.S. spends billions of dollars on sick care and little on health care.
"What does insurance have to do with having a job?" Avery asked. "Is your auto insurance or your life insurance tied to your employment? Why is it that when you lose your job, you lose your health insurance? We don't need to be hanging by a thread like that. If doctors were paid when we are healthy instead of when we are sick we would be better off."
Barbara Jackson-Lee, V.I. Perinatal executive director, said while she was growing up in New York City she "depended" on the public health system for dental treatment, preventive medicine and emergency treatment. "The Virgin Islands has a complete disregard for poor people" who have no health insurance and depend on government health services, Jackson-Lee said.
Among the inadequacies of the government, Jackson-Lee said, are lack of preventive care, mental illness treatment, hospice care, government-sponsored health insurance, information on healthy relationships, leadership opportunities and affordable housing.
Following a morning session of talks by women community leaders, the group was treated to discussions by several panel guests speaking on various issues related to human rights and health.
Aminah Saleem , coordinator of the VI Perinatal Community Action Initiative, suggested that some aspects of the declaration be incorporated into the proposed V.I. Constitution.
"Be a health-wise woman," Avery urged the participants. "Recognize your personal power. Your health is the most important thing you have."
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.