Five Ways Human Rights Can Inform SDoH

December 10th marks seventy-two years since the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By utilizing principles of human rights, social programs can better inform and improve social determinants of health (SDoH). Consider the five principles listed below as ways your program can successfully incorporate human rights. 


Over seventy years ago, The United Nations Human Rights Commission created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document that established the global standard of human dignity1The commission, chaired by US Ambassador Eleanor Roosevelt, sought to bring human rights into the forefront of international relations and ensure that fundamental rights were universally protected. 

The heart of this document focused on spreading the ideals of human rights. Broadly speaking, human rights focus on the “struggle against exploitation of one person by another2. They encompass the basic rights all humans have regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, or creed. Put simply, human rights propel the concept that every individual has inherent dignity and worth. 

However, human rights mean more than simply acknowledging a person’s virtue; it entails enacting policies and laws that ensure these rights are protectedActions such as ensuring the right to adequate food and nutrition, education, potable water, sanitation, safe and healthy working conditions, and a healthy environment all fall within the scope of human rights3When properly addressed, such policies can help improve social programs through their relationship with social determinants of health. 



Although strikingly congruent in purpose, human rights and social determinants of health (SDoH) have traditionally been siloed when addressing social care4. Key social determinants, including food and nutrition, adequate housing, and education are even enumerated as human rights, yet often they are not addressed together. Some experts suggest this separation may come from the misconception that human rights are only legal parameters and thus not as relevant to groundwork. However, studies show that adherence to human rights can directly secure SDoH5, thus improving the effectiveness of these social programs. 

When human rights are viewed as social responsibilities for communities to uphold, they can act as a broader framework that ties programs, governments, and resources together6. Human rights can provide an additional avenue to hold governments accountable for the adverse effects of SDoH7offering yet another path for programs to ensure adequate resources to help their targeted demographics. 



How do programs begin using human rights and SDoH together? A human rightsbased approach to addressing SDoH means focusing on core rights and how your program can uphold and support such rights8. While there may be certain rights directly related to one cause, such as food and nutrition or access to shelter, each one compounds upon the other—much like SDoH—to create a network of interconnected components. 

Experts from the National Association of Social Workers suggest all social programs consider incorporating these five human rights as tools to frame initiatives9: 

    Respecting human dignity means respecting an individual’s self-determination. Avoid viewing those your program helps as needy or broken—this can objectify and dehumanize them. Instead, fight the stigma and scapegoating that comes from poor SDoH. 

    SDoH are directly impacted by social, structural, and historical discrimination, and as such programs should work to prevent such discrimination at ANY level. This includes acknowledging historical traumas from human rights violations and actively striving to create space for historically excluded populations. 

    No one understands a situation better than the people experiencing it. By striving to adhere to the human right of participation—ensuring not just a token voice, but a genuine opportunity for increased access to power—programs can help individuals have a say in decisions that directly affect their welfare. 

    In terms of social programs, the right to transparency directly translates to non-corruption. Individuals should be able to trust the initiative seeking to help them, and this comes from guaranteeing that efforts are evidence-based and reflective of quality research. 

    For social programs to properly reflect accountability, they must be active in raising awareness for human rights and consistently supporting institutions that respect these rights. Such adherence can be accomplished through community organizing and activism. 


As more programs strive to incorporate human rights into their efforts, those they serve will see the benefit in their SDoHTogether, human rights and SDoH can complement and build upon one another, offering a sturdy base for equitable endeavors to continue growing. 




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