Celebrating Women in Health and Human Rights

March is Women’s History Month: 31 days to celebrate the contributions of women throughout the ages.

Unfortunately, the stories of too many influential women have been lost to time. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s History Month, PHR is profiling extraordinary women who have made an impact in the movement for health and human rights around the world.

These are just a handful of the women who have influenced and paved the way for members of PHR’s staff. They’ve inspired us to stand up for what’s right – even putting their own lives at risk in the fight for progress. Our picks include doctors, medical professionals, activists, writers, and more. Our team members at PHR have been lucky to meet, work with, and even take classes from some of these women. They have been and continue to be fearless leaders in human rights, justice, and public health.

Have an inspirational woman you want to share with us this month? Tweet @P4HR so we can see!

Rouzan al-Najjar (1997-2018)

By Joseph Leone, PHR research and investigations fellow

“Rouzan al-Najjar was a 20-year-old Palestinian medic who was killed in 2018 while providing care to protestors in Gaza advocating for their human rights. Human rights groups reported that Rouzan was shot intentionally by the Israeli Defense Forces for carrying out her medical duties, despite being ‘a clearly identified medical staffer,’ according to the United Nations. Rouzan is an inspiring example of a first responder dedicated to providing emergency care to the wounded and fighting for human rights. Like many health care workers worldwide, Rouzan became a target for her lifesaving work. Her death was a tragedy, and her bravery and commitment to care, human rights, and liberation are a lasting inspiration.”

Dr. Amani Ballour

By Amal Rass, PHR advocacy and policy intern

“Dr. Amani Ballour is a Syrian pediatrician and women’s rights advocate who ran an underground hospital in Eastern Ghouta – a region outside Damascus that was under siege by the Syrian government. An inspiration for many, Ballour shattered gender norms when she became a doctor and risked her life to provide much-needed care for those in conflict zones. Her hospital was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Cave.”

Dr. Carola Eisenberg (1918-2021)

By Dr. Michele Heisler, MD, MPH, PHR medical director

“Carola Eisenberg, a founding member of PHR, has dedicated her life to human rights and advocacy work. After traveling to El Salvador in the 1980s with several other physicians and witnessing horrifying human rights violations, Eisenberg and the group reconvened in Boston to address the atrocities. It was there that the idea of Physicians for Human Rights was born. Eisenberg also served as the first female dean of student affairs at both MIT and Harvard Medical School. She continued to teach students about the crucial connections between medicine and human rights into her 90s. Sadly, Eisenberg passed away on March 11, 2021. Learn more about her legacy.

Dr. Nawal el-Saadawi

By Dr. Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS, PHR senior medical expert

“An Egyptian physician, public health leader, human rights advocate, and feminist writer, Nawal el-Saadawi dedicated her career to fighting against women’s oppression and harmful traditional practices, such as female genital cutting. El-Saadawi always stayed true to her convictions and spoke out even when she knew her polemic would land her in jail – which it did. Using an eyebrow pencil and toilet paper, she wrote a memoir while incarcerated called Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, a first-hand account of women’s resistance to state violence. Her work has left a lasting impression on women around the world, myself included.”

Dr. Kadambini Ganguly (1861-1923)

By Karen Naimer, JD, LLM, MA, PHR director of programs

“At a time when women were largely barred from education, Kadambini Ganguly worked diligently to excel in higher education at the very first college for women in India. Not only would she become one of the first women to graduate college in India, but she became the country’s first Indian-educated female doctor in 1866. Ganguly was also a fierce advocate of the women’s rights movement, fighting hard to improve Indian women’s working conditions. She undoubtedly changed the face of Indian medicine.”

Nadia Murad

By Annum Sadana, PHR interim advocacy associate

“An Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist, Nadia Murad, alongside Panzi Hospital founder Dr. Denis Mukwege, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Her courage in highlighting crimes of sexual violence against Yazidi women and sharing her personal story has inspired people around the world. PHR continues to support her courageous work to provide much-needed justice and care to survivors in Iraq and beyond.”

Teophila Murage

By Naitore Nyamu-Mathenge, LLM, MA, PHR Kenya head of office

“Sexual violence is a significant problem in Kenya that cuts across gender, geographical locations, economic status, and age – but many women are dedicating their careers to fighting it. Teophila Murage, the nursing officer in-charge of the Gender Based Violence and Recovery Center (GBVRC) at the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru, Kenya, is one of these women. Through her efforts at the GBVRC, Murage has helped improve post-rape care and reduce the stigma against survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Multiple PHR staff members have been lucky to partner with her and amplify the Center’s efforts.” Learn more.

Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914)

By Hannah Dunphy, PHR digital communications manager

“Bertha von Suttner, an Austrian writer, activist, and pacifist, saw the natural link between women’s suffrage and international discussions on how to prevent conflict and became determined to have a seat at the table. In 1899, she was the sole woman to attend the opening of the Hague Peace Conference, which eventually led to the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Her long-time friendship with Alfred Nobel helped convince him to create the Nobel prize, and, in 1905, von Suttner was the first woman to receive it. Thanks to the work of historians, activists, and educators, due light is finally being cast on Bertha von Suttner’s extraordinary life.”

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