Posted by: afedorova | 07/05/2011

Award winner reflects on dramatic events that developed passion for human rights

This is a guest blog by Juan Manuel Canales, the 2006 Jonathan Mann Award Winner.  Dr. Canales has worked with indigenous communities in rural El Salvador and Mexico for the last 25 years.  He currently works for Doctors for Global Health.

When my friends and I were in college in the 70s, guerrillas were fighting the government over social inequalities in Mexico.  As the violence intensified, we began to see our own civil rights erode as the state of Guerrero became more and more militarized.  It was not long before we lived in a state of siege.  To travel from Acapulco or anywhere else in the state or country, we were searched and questioned by soldiers at checkpoints.  We saw the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre on June 2, 1968 and the Town of Santo Tomas “Jueves de Corpus” killing on June 10, 1971.  We saw our own government persecuting organized people, students, workers and peasants.

After we graduated from medical school, several of us decided to do our social service year in rural communities in the Lacandon jungle.  There we witnessed the terrible conditions under which the indigenous Mayans lived.  They were subject to poverty, misery, discrimination, and marginalization.  There were no roads, no electricity, and no schools.  The nearest hospital was 100 kilometers away.  Sadly, we saw a great deal of suffering from preventable diseases.

These formative experiences are what led me to start working with a clandestine organization that was defending health and human rights and denouncing disappearances, impunity, persecution, and torture in El Salvador in the 1980s.  In an effort to show solidarity with the people who were suffering, I provided medical care and training to community health workers.

Today, I work in rural southern Mexico for Doctors for Global Health (DGH), an organization that strives for the protection of human rights and the right to health.  DGH sends volunteers to Hospital San Carlos and the surrounding area to support community health work.  While we work to empower communities in Mexico and other parts of the world, my DGH colleagues in the United States advocate on behalf of health and human rights.  Together we will continue the struggle.

When I won the Jonathan Mann Award in 2006, the recognition reminded me that there is still a community of health care professionals with human sensitivity, trying to rescue the values of medical practice and convince governments to provide health services to those who desperately need them.  It made me feel that DGH is not alone in the struggle to defend the lives and rights of the poor.  I am grateful for other organizations that believe that human rights and the right to health are universal.  It also reminded me of my commitment to society to continue in this endless struggle against the government and any other group that violates human rights, be they drug traffickers, human traffickers, or paramilitaries.

Some of the other issues that concern me right now are the continuing tendency of young doctors to specialize and the fact that many rural areas continue to lack access to basic medical care.  In addition, too much of the funding of our health care system goes to pharmaceutical companies and the insurance industry.  This makes new projects more difficult since there are so few doctors prepared to work in community health.

At DGH we will continue our work to try to change bad medical practices and public health policies.  We will keep encouraging communities to demand the health services that should be provided to them.  I simply do not think we can continue with the model of private medicine and models of public health that give assistance without collaboration with communities.

Sometimes I feel sad when I think about everything that is happening today with so many human rights violations and so many deaths caused by wars and nuclear disasters.  Unfortunately, the majority of deaths in poor rural communities are still caused by preventable diseases.  But at the same time, I am content to be contributing to the struggle to change these conditions.

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