Margaret Wurth, MPH '12

Researcher, Human Rights Watch

You are currently a Researcher at Human Rights Watch – where you completed your SMS practicum. Can you tell us about your practicum experience?
For my practicum, I interned with the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, where my main project was to research and write an advocacy document on harm reduction access for people who use drugs in North Carolina. My practicum project gave me the chance to argue that misguided state laws and policies were blocking evidence-based HIV prevention strategies, such as sterile syringes. After my first year of coursework in SMS, I was well prepared to analyze how the legal and policy context was creating barriers to effective public health interventions. Human Rights Watch added a layer to my analysis by helping me to see harm reduction not only as sound public health policy, but also as a human rights imperative.

Can you talk about some of the various topics you cover over at Human Rights Watch, and what kinds of activities are involved with your work there?
I was the intern who refused to leave! During my second year in SMS, I continued to intern with the Health and Human Rights Division, and assisted with research on the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related crimes in New York and other major US cities. After graduating (actually, one week before graduation!) with my MPH, Human Rights Watch hired me for an advocacy position for the condoms-as-evidence project, so I spent my days arguing with police and prosecutors that the public health benets of carrying condoms far outweigh any value the legal system might find in prosecuting someone for engaging in sex work. This past year, I have been working on a project regarding hazardous child labor on tobacco farms in the US. Through this research, my colleagues and I have found that children are working on US tobacco farms, and are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers. This May, we published a report with our ndings, and we are now calling on Congress, the Obama administration, and big tobacco companies to end hazardous child labor on US tobacco farms. [Read Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming.]

How has the "SMS lens" (seeing public health as embedded in particular social, cultural, economic, and political contexts) inuenced your professional attitudes and approaches to addressing public health issues?
The SMS lens has shaped my approach to all of my work at Human Rights Watch. SMS taught me that effective policy advocacy happens when you’re able to fully understand the diverse factors driving any health problem or shaping any health behavior, and to target the factors that are changeable. When I worked with the condoms-as-evidence project, I understood that police harassment and proling of sex workers and transgender women was a harmful symptom of the criminalization of sex work. In my current research on child labor, I understand that poverty is pushing many parents to bring their young children to the elds to work. Recognizing these factors has helped me shape a realistic advocacy strategy, and push for feasible changes. I have always wanted to work with an organization committed to changing policies to promote public health, and I feel lucky to have found a home at Human Rights Watch where the SMS approach is part of my daily work.