After years of researching the intersection of gender norms
and sexual risk behavior in Nepal, South Africa and Tanzania,
she suspected that the Ethiopian women were being forced to
compromise their human right to sexual health and safety. In
response, she launched a study with two Ethiopian universities
to evaluate what types of interventions would protect these
women’s rights on the campuses there.
As part of the study, Kaufman is interviewing male students
about their attitudes toward women on campus and sexual
violence, as well as female students about their experiences
with coercion. She is also facilitating group discussions with
students about the climate for women on campus and what
could be done to prevent women from being coerced into sex.
She is planning community events to raise awareness about
why certain behaviors hurt women, and hopes to work with
university administrators to review the policies related to sexual
assault on campus.
“I think many of the early programs that aimed to reduce
sexual violence in the U.S. and abroad may have failed because
they focused solely on the voice of the victim and female
empowerment,” she says. “While female empowerment is
crucial, if we don’t change the attitudes around masculinity and
power, this problem will not go away.”
Although sexual violence in Ethiopia is more conspicuous
than in the United States, Kaufman says she was keenly aware
that it is also a problem on American college campuses.
This reality came to the fore in the last year after scandals at
several universities made headlines, including a gang rape at
Johns Hopkins. Kaufman was asked to join a research team
at the university to explore the issue along with several other
universities. They are compiling their results to share with the
White House Initiative to Protect Students from Sexual Assault
to help leaders shape national policies. Kaufman will also be
interviewing sexual assault survivors and analyzing survey data
from Hopkins as part of the project.
Kaufman is one of a growing number of psychologists who
are working to influence human rights in public policy and
practice. Although the field of “human rights psychology” is not
strictly defined (see sidebar), all of these psychologists have a
common goal: protecting the rights of all people.
Growing experts abroad
Like Kaufman, Sandra Zakowski, PhD, a professor in the
department of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional
Psychology, knows that human rights violations are often
hidden, and she believes psychologists can play a vital role in
documenting the impacts these violations have on people.
Through Physicians for Human Rights and the Heartland
Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors
of Torture, Zakowski has conducted psychological evaluations
of people who are seeking asylum in the United States.
Many have been victims of war, torture, gender-based
violence and the trauma of fleeing their home countries.
The documentation of their suffering provides important
information for the legal proceedings as they seek asylum, she
The field of “human rights psychology” is in its
infancy. In 2009, APA created a vision statement that
includes a section about the organization serving
as “an effective champion of the application of
psychology to promote human rights, health, well-
being and dignity.”
“Psychology and human rights have had very
separate and distinct histories, and there has not
been a clear connection between the two,” says
Clinton Anderson, PhD, associate executive director
of the Public Interest Directorate and Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office director.
“APA is trying to clarify the connection.”
Although milestone documents proclaiming
individual human rights can be traced back to the
13th century with the Magna Carta, the modern
understanding of the term originated in response
to World War II, says Gabe Twose, PhD, a senior
legislative and federal affairs officer at APA who
focuses on human rights. In 1948, the United Nations
General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, which includes 30 articles
describing the rights of all human beings.
While the declaration provides a general framework
of human rights, the practical distinction between
these rights and other concepts such as civil rights,
public interest and social justice can be murky, Twose
explains. “The definition of what constitutes human
rights is a complicated, contested topic,” he says.
Despite this ambiguity, “do no harm” is an ethical
obligation for all psychologists — which encompasses
the protection of a patient or research subject’s human
rights. “All psychologists should keep in mind the
dignity, humanity and connectedness of all people
during their work,” Twose says.
To read more about the area, see the special issue
about human rights in APA’s Peace and Conflict:
Journal of Peace Psychology, February 2015 issue.
What is ‘human rights psychology’?