Dr. Carol Pavlish in Rwanda

Prior to joining the UCLA School of Nursing faculty in 2006, Dr. Carol Pavlish spent nearly three decades teaching at College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, MN, a women's college. There, she learned of the importance of viewing women's health in the context of women's political and socioeconomic wellbeing. Pavlish became acutely aware of the close link between education and women's ability to exercise options – and saw that when given the opportunity, women tended to make decisions that improved the lives of their families and communities.

Much of this thinking has developed in the decade that Pavlish has been working with the nonprofit American Refugee Committee (ARC), which has provided humanitarian assistance and training to millions of beneficiaries in its 30-year history, working with refugee communities in seven countries. Since 2000, Pavlish has made regular visits to the African countries of Rwanda, Uganda, and Sudan in conjunction with the ARC, contributing her research and academic expertise.

What started as a health focus has evolved. "The women in these areas told us their health is much bigger than a physical experience – that it has to do with things like political autonomy and cultural traditions as well," Pavlish says. "They kept talking about gender-based violence and not having opportunities for education. We realized we couldn't address health without addressing these other issues."

The community-based research of Pavlish and her ARC collaborators aims to deepen understanding about the social context that influences human rights experiences and gender relationships in post-conflict settings. Working most recently in southern Sudan, they have teamed with community-based groups in an effort to explore perspectives on human rights barriers women encounter. "In postconflict settings human rights violations persist, and women and girls are especially vulnerable to discrimination and violence," says Pavlish.

Pavlish was most recently in southern Sudan in August and September, fieldtesting and refining activities created by the community organizations before they are disseminated. Among the strategies are the use of drama and storytelling in an effort to develop and integrate a human rights framework that will be effective in the small villages.

"The stories we hear about human rights violations and gender-based violence are just heartbreaking," says Pavlish. "But there are many people in the country who are committed to doing somethingabout it and improving the health and well-being of women and their families."