We’ve all heard plenty about the United States when it comes to matters concerning Pakistan. Drone strikes, political restrictions and policy influencing. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t blame the United States for the state our country is in. A few months ago, however, I got a chance to meet a helping hand from the States, someone who’s been working on an aspect of our society that either we’ve forgotten about, chosen to overlook or are just too caught up in our everyday lives to remember.
Dr. Sarah Kureshi, a community health activist from the United States, is currently in Pakistan as part of the American Speakers Program Series and I was lucky enough to get the chance to sit down and discuss her time and efforts in Pakistan, what they may culminate into and what she’s taking away from her time here.
- Dr. Sarah Kureshi
“I’m here as part of the American Speakers Program Series”, said Dr. Sarah. “It’s all about exchange. We bring different speakers from the United States to different countries (and vice versa) with the aim of educating and exchanging ideas through two way open dialogue.”
Dr. Sarah Kureshi graduated from medical school in Minnesota where she worked with Somali refugees and got her first taste of community health and awareness. ”During college, I loved working with the community. I knew my strengths lay in sciences and I was thinking about medicine. I read a book titled, “Waking up in America” by Dr. Greer, a doctor in Miami who opened up clinics for the homeless in his van. This was the first realization that I could combine my interest of medicine and community health”
“I completed a fellowship in community health after my residency, and then spent another year being a doctor again, working in a clinic in Northeast DC. It has a largely urban population, underserved; most people haven’t seen a doctor in at least 10 years”
Dr. Sarah teamed up with the American embassy in the American Speakers Program Series to come to Pakistan and highlight key issues regarding community health and work towards solving them. She aims at connecting with people, working with them to highlight and discuss various issues, especially when it comes to sensitive topics such as gender based violence and sex trafficking.
Talking about her prior experience in the field, Dr. Sarah mentioned how her Masters in Public Health focused on sex trafficking and how it eventually led her to spend two months in India living in a shelter with women rescued from the heinous trade.
“Initially, the School wanted to send me to Geneva, but I wanted some experience on the ground before I went into policy matters and so, I went to India. I found an organization I wanted to work with and the School helped fund the program. The organization I worked with and the work they do, is still used as a model till this day.”
Coming to the issues relating to our very own homeland, Dr. Sarah is currently working with organizations around Pakistan, looking to work on joint projects and ventures that aim at improving human rights and their development. “Most human rights violations are affecting women and children negatively than men. When it comes to partner violence, sex trafficking and child abuse, the brunt of the trauma and majority of targets are usually women and children.”
When talking about Pakistan, the cultural boundaries that a victim must overcome in order to simply talk about what they have experienced or are going through are immense. The question rose in my mind, “A lot of times when violence is committed against women or children, the culture is built as such that they don’t want to communicate about their experiences. How do you overcome things like that?”
“One of the most common problems in cases such as that is that the victim doesn’t identify themselves as a victim. It’s normal. It just happened. It’s all about changing the mindset to such actions. Educate, educate, educate. A common tool used when encountering such cases is health worker role play. Since victims aren’t comfortable opening up to the first person they see (a professional), we have to open up a dialogue. Connect with them while not forcing any questions. Talking at a steady pace, making sure they open up and speak about it when they’re comfortable.”
“If the victims aren’t forthcoming, how do you find out about such cases?” I asked.
“ We look for what we call red flags; indicators of abuse. Every type of abuse has certain indicators, all you have to do is ask he right questions when you see them. The indicators usually have hidden meanings.”
Talking about solutions to violence against women, Dr. Sarah said, “Sports can be used for peace building, development and preventing violence. They can be used to empower, open up a communication bridge, change gender norms and roles. Sports is a global language that helps personal development, instills leadership and teamwork skills, enhances confidence, a sense of agency and discipline while bringing people together. It’s also a great way to let loose and lose frustration”
Community health in Pakistan, when it comes to women from rural areas, is supported by the Government through lady health workers. The program was started by Benazir Bhutto and recruits women from communities that they are then tasked to provide healthcare to. This removes any stigmatization of the health workers while allowing the women of the community the comfort of opening up to someone trusted and known. The health workers are trained by physicians and conduct regular visits every month. They return to their healthcare units and are provided with monthly training sessions, medical supplies and anything they may need to ensure the provision of much needed healthcare.
“This system is prevalent throughout Pakistan. Since the women are from the community, they know to work within the boundaries and dynamics of the community” said Sarah.