Abstract – Filling the gap: A Learning Network for Health and Human Rights in the Western Cape, South Africa

Leslie London, Nicolé Fick, Khai Hoan Tram, Maria Stuttaford

Health and Human Rights 14/1

Published June 2012


We draw on the experience of a Learning Network for Health and Human Rights (LN) involving collaboration between academic institutions and civil society organizations in the Western Cape, South Africa, aimed at identifying and disseminating best practice related to the right to health. The LN’s work in materials development, participatory research, training and capacity-building for action, and advocacy for intervention illustrates important lessons for human rights practice. These include (i) the importance of active translation of knowledge and awareness into action for rights to be made real; (ii) the potential tension arising from civil society action, which might relieve the state of its obligations by delivering services that should be the state’s responsibility—and hence the importance of emphasizing civil society’s role in holding services accountable in terms of the right to health; (iii) the role of civil society organizations in filling a gap related to obligations to promote rights; (iv) the critical importance of networking and solidarity for building civil society capacity to act for health rights. Evidence from evaluation of the LN is presented to support the argument that civil society can play a key role in bridging a gap between formal state commitment to creating a human rights culture and realizing services and policies that enable the most vulnerable members of society to advance their health. Through access to information and the creation of spaces, both for participation and as a safe environment in which learning can be turned into practice, the agency of those most affected by rights violations can be redressed. We argue that civil society agency is critical to such action.