Protecting Health in Conflict

04/11/2014
Meenaskhi Menon

This post was originally published on the GHETS Blog.

In 2009, while a fellow at the Center for Khmer Studies in Cambodia, I interviewed a pediatric nurse based at the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap. Our conversation was short, but what I remember most about the encounter was my colleague’s answer to my question about why she had come to Cambodia in the first place.

“Yes, I’m from Sri Lanka. But I’m in Cambodia now because I know what it’s like to live in conflict. Good health is important, especially for women and children. So I’m here because I understand the context and have the skills to help.”

After our interview concluded, I remember thinking how ironic it was to be discussing the work of health professionals, when only thirty years earlier, being a health professional was a crime punishable by death. My time in Cambodia coincided with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and many of the health professionals with whom I worked were acutely aware of their unique position in the reestablishment of the post-conflict Cambodian health system. Only 45 physicians survived the Cambodian genocide, and much of the last 30 years has been spent redeveloping the infrastructure and health workforce that was lost.

This week, as we celebrate World Health Worker Week and mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, I am reminded of all of the health professionals who continue to risk their lives to safeguard the right to health for their patients and communities. GHETS partners at Juba University School of Medicine in South Sudan are tirelessly working to reestablish training programs in medicine, nursing and midwifery, public health, community health, and water and sanitation despite ongoing violence and armed attacks against civilians. Syrian health professionals, like Dr. Qasem, are choosing to remain in-country to treat civilians attacked by government forces despite job dismissals and jail threats. And in Pakistan, at great risk to themselves, community health workers continue to provide life-saving treatment and immunizations to patients in Taliban strongholds like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.  

While health workers are protected from direct aggression during armed conflict under the Geneva Convention, recent attacks against health workers indicate that the international community needs to take steps to strengthen and protect medical neutrality. These steps include:

  • Improving mechanisms to oppose health worker attacks
  • Documenting health worker attacks to provide evidence and analysis of attacks’ impact on communities and health systems
  • Developing tangible strategies that protect health workers from attacks and hold perpetrators accountable

Without further action, attacks on health workers in conflict settings will continue to impede health service delivery, health system reconstruction, and health worker retention. During this World Health Worker Week, let’s honor health workers by taking steps to ensure that health workers everywhere are valued, better supported, and protected from acts of violence.

Meenakshi Menon is the executive director of GHETS. She represents GHETS on the steering committees of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition and the Health Workforce Advocacy Initiative.