As a student in Mombasa, Kenya, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Suhaila Ahmed Aboud dreamed of becoming a doctor. After receiving her diploma in clinical medicine and surgery, she accepted a position with Doctors Without Borders. What started as a three-week assignment ended up being an almost 10-year job and led her to pursue medicine and ultimately to the fight against gender-based violence (GBV).
When Kenya experienced a period of post-election violence, Suhaila was working in a makeshift clinic at a church in Mathare. It was then that Suhaila first witnessed the brutality of sexual violence. Her experiences in Mathare were extremely impactful in shaping the course of her professional life. After her work with Doctors Without Borders, Suhaila went on to work at a sexual and gender-based recovery center before co-founding Gender Health Africa, an organization committed to creating a society free from GBV. Suhaila also belongs to a global roving emergency team that teaches health care providers in other countries how to manage rape cases and support survivors of sexual assault.
In this podcast, Suhaila discusses the challenges and rewards in her work with survivors of GBV. She notes the need for empathy when providing support to survivors and acknowledges that health care providers in her field can experience trauma too. Suhaila shares her hopes for the future and her desire to educate students about consent and GBV-related issues. She also speaks to the YALI Network, offering advice to members of the YALI community on how they can make strides towards ending GBV.
To learn more about Suhaila’s work, visit www.genderhealthafrica.org.
Listen to Suhaila’s story in this edition of the YALI Voices podcast or read the transcript below.
The views expressed here are Suhaila’s and do not reflect those of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: SUHAILA ABOUD
SUHAILA ABOUD: So the YALI Network, I want them to know that gender-based violence will continue as long as there’s no gender equality. So we should all brace up and do something, and there’s always something that each of us can do, either you as a social worker, as a health worker, as someone concerned in security, as someone concerned in economic empowerment and livelihoods — all this, there is something everyone can do.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to YALI Voices wherever you get your podcasts. Listen to all the podcasts at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com, where you can stay up to date on all things YALI.
On this edition of the YALI Voices podcast, we’re talking with Suhaila Ahmed Aboud. Suhaila grew up in the coastal town of Malinda, Kenya, in a large, extended family, with a mother who valued education and had big dreams for her children. She moved Suhaila and her brothers to Mombasa so that they could attend better schools — believing that an education was, as Suhaila remembers, their only way out.
Our conversation with Suhaila follows her path from her days as a student in clinical medicine to her work with victims of gender-based violence or G-B-V. Currently, she’s part of a roving global United Nations GBV emergency team and leads the medical response in multiple countries with a focus on delivering comprehensive survivor-centered GBV intervention.
We start our podcast with Suhaila sharing more on growing up in Kenya and her mother’s desire for her daughter to be educated.
SUHAILA: I guess also it has a lot to do with her being in a polygamous family or relationship, if I may call it that. So she felt that we, I, as a young girl at that time, needed to have more, so she really wanted us to get that good — especially maybe me — to get that education. So she sent me, I and my brother, to this big town to go to better schools.
So I went through primary school, and my dream was always to become a doctor. And everything seemed to be in good track because I was the top of my class in primary, and I got to go to a national school, which was everyone’s dream, to go to such a school.
And I did my high school. Unfortunately I didn’t get those A grades to get me to the university to study medicine, but I was so passionate about being a doctor, and my parents knew that, so they came up with a Plan B. Instead of taking me to the university, which I didn’t get the grades to go, they took me to a college to study something similar to a degree in medicine, which is a diploma in clinical medicine and surgery.
This was still in Mombasa, and I did my studying there, and when I was done, I felt that I wanted more, and Mombasa didn’t give me what I wanted, so I decided to randomly go to the city, which is Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and I went to the Referral Hospital to do my internship there.
So I got my diploma in clinical medicine. I did my internship, so I was licensed to practice. And immediately I finished my internship, I decided to volunteer in, somewhere called, in an organization called LVCT Health. And mainly they used to offer, or they still do that, offer comprehensive care to HIV patients. And that’s where I started my professional journey. So for two months, I went to volunteer there, and while I was volunteering in those two months, I got a job opportunity. I saw work advertised. It was going to be only three weeks. I was to replace someone who had gone on a mission. So I applied for this work very young, no experience, just the two months of volunteer, and I got, took, I was employed by Doctors Without Borders.
And that was like very big validation for me, because, remember, I really wanted to be a doctor. And now being employed for Doctors Without Borders, even for three days, could have been something very wonderful for me. So I went in to work for Doctors Without Borders, intended to stay there for three weeks. Fortunately I stayed for almost a decade, because I worked for Doctors Without Borders for nine years and nine months.
SUHAILA: I worked at Doctors Without Borders in Nairobi, based near Mathare slum. And I worked there as a clinical officer in the HIV and TB clinic. That was for like one year. And during that same year, in 2007, towards end of 2007, 2008, in Kenya we had the post-election violence. And during that time I was selected to be in the emergency team that responded to the violence in Mathare and the Eastland region in Nairobi.
So during this time, while I worked in the emergency unit, we never worked in the clinic that we worked normally. So we had a makeshift clinic that was in a church somewhere in Nairobi called Huruma Church. We worked in this clinic, and we worked for many hours, and it was during this time in this clinic that I saw a lot of brutality, so much physical violence, sexual violence cases that were brought, and it was my first time to be exposed to cases of sexual violence. We worked in this clinic for almost 40 days. And then when the violence was over in Kenya — thank God — Doctors Without Borders decided to set up a separate clinic as a follow-up of the violence that we saw during the emergency.
So this clinic was to take cases of sexual or gender-based violence, and I was given an option either to continue where I normally worked before or to move into the new clinic. So when I got this opportunity, I quickly jumped on it and moved into this new section and started working at the sexual and gender-based violence recovery center.
So, during the post-election violence where I was in the emergency team, we saw a lot of physical violence, a lot of maiming, people come, hands chopped, legs chopped. People come, had bullet injuries. We had a lot of rape cases of young children and women. We had a lot of physical violence. I remember a lot of pain, a lot of blood, a lot of images that people never really saw in the media. And I felt that I was never really prepared as a young person to see all this kind of violence. There was no time that we sat down and said, hey, it’s going to be a tough time, prepare for tough times. So it just really happened so fast, and I think it really had a lot of impact in my life from that moment to the person I am right now.
VOICE OVER: In the violence that took place during the Kenyan elections, Suhaila, working in the Mathare slum, observed that it disproportionately affected innocent bystanders. People trying to go about their normal lives as she put it — not those instigating the violence. The results of the violence she witnessed had a profound effect on her and would shape her work for many years. Later, she shares one of the most powerful ways we all can support victims of gender-based violence.
SUHAILA: So coming into work in the sexual and gender-based violence recovery center, that was almost 10 years ago, in 2008. And as I mentioned, I was still working for Doctors Without Borders. And I remember the first things that we are told was the importance of confidentiality, that the cases that we’re going to see as health care providers, we need to give them, the women, the dignity they deserve, and as well as maintain the confidentiality of their cases. So that is what was so, so important at that time, and it was really instilled in us the importance of creating this privacy and confidentiality for the survivors.
At the same time, I think what was left out was that as health care providers, we need to have an outlet to talk about what we are seeing, the traumatic stories that we’re hearing, because whether we wanted it or not, whether we were conscious about it or not, these cases were going to affect us in one way or another.
So I felt, I feel now, as a health care provider that also I didn’t really get the good preparation on how to take care of myself, coming in this field at that young age, and also knowing that I never really had experienced much working with any other group of patients or people because I was too new in the field.
So I worked in the clinic, and I think I saw so much pain, so many traumatic stories than I could ever tell. And all these stories changed me bit by bit every day. There were so many times that I canceled my plans, I never went out. Or I used to be fun and bubbly, and like any other normal 24 year old, like would want to go out and have fun. There were so many nights I canceled because I was scared, because the kind of stories that I heard from these survivors were things that were so relatable with me as a young woman. For example, if I could share, I got a survivor who say that she was from a date in a restaurant, and when she was heading back home, the taxi driver drove the car elsewhere, got her out, and sexually violated her.
So hearing such a story, for me as a young woman, it was so relatable. It’s something that could have happened to me. So every day these stories took away something from me and made me more scared, made me want to be more cautious. And the stories of children, there were so many traumatic stories of children being raped, both boys and girls.
SUHAILA: I think one of the very powerful thing I would say to a survivor was that I believe you, I believe you. Because there are so many times, something happens to a woman, and she wouldn’t talk about it because she feels that nobody will believe her. Because a lot of studies are showing that most people who violate a woman are people who are known to her, people they trust. For example, if a young teenager is violated by the father or the uncle, then she imagines, how will, will people really believe me if I say this?
So just acknowledging that I believe you, that is already something which is so powerful, and it’s an opportunity for any and every health worker to do for a survivor or a person who reports any of these assaults. And it’s also an opportunity, because the health system provides an opportunity for health workers to identify these survivors.
So many times people who’ve been violated will come to the hospital for many different things. They might not tell you exactly that maybe I’ve been violated, but they may come that they have an injury on the arm, they have an injury on the eye, they have broken their leg. So it’s up to us to be keen to be able to identify and acknowledge that we are there for the survivors and that there is something we can offer to them.
So when we are able, as health care providers, to offer empathy to the survivors, then it opens so many other doors to the survivors. We are a link to the social support that they can get, to the police support that they can get, to the legal support that they can get.
But as health care providers, if we do not create that environment, that safe environment for the survivor to talk about what has brought them there, then we have closed all these other doors that they could have accessed.
SUHAILA: So, as a health care provider that provides direct services to survivors of sexual violence or gender-based violence, then there is what we call secondary trauma, which can affect a person who’s witnessing images, hearing traumatic stories every day.
So we need to have an awareness first that all this can affect us either consciously or unconsciously. We need to have that awareness first so that we can be able to do something about it. Then provide for ourselves forums that are safe to talk about the difficult cases that we see, because many times as health care providers, we get to a point that we feel helpless, that we cannot offer everything that this survivor has. And this is what maybe piles down and makes us feel that we’re not doing the possible best that this survivor deserves. So just knowing that, if I play my part as a health care provider, then it’s not on me particularly that everything has to happen perfectly.
But just at the same time, striving to create these other links because we cannot provide everything as one facility or as one person. So what I try to do nowadays is talk more with my peers or colleagues or supervisor about the difficult cases that I’m not able to support or the difficult cases that I feel, if we put our three, four heads together, we can solve the case better than if I took everything on my own. And I also try to do individual therapy, just to talk about what — how the cases make me feel and what I can do to feel better about myself. And I try to be out there more, take up a sport, do 20, 30 minutes of walking, and realizing that as much as the clinic provides me this opportunity of being there, listening to very traumatic stories, it’s because of the position that I’m in at the clinic. And once I leave that clinic, I go back to my normal life, and I should be able to have a balance between the two. As much as it sounds something that is possible to do, it’s something that really needs us to strive in to ensure that we create that balance, because it’s not really easy.
There are so many times I find myself very sad. There are so many times I struggle with experiencing joy. There are so many times I struggle with intimacy. So I ask myself or I reflect and tell myself, I have not been raped, and this is what I’m experiencing as a first responder. I was just there to listen to a woman and work with this woman in that journey, but it never happened to me. And if this has this kind of impact on me, what kind of impact does it have, does it have to that person who experienced it firsthand?
So just reflecting about this gives me all the energy, all the momentum, all the passion that I need to push forward and ask for more for these survivors, because I realize how tough it is for the survivors. So what I’ve been doing for the longest time is volunteering to teach other health workers on how to manage or how to provide quality clinical care for survivors of rape. Because sitting in that clinic for those years, I realized that not many people have the skills that are needed — either interviewing the survivor, how you talk to the survivor to earn their trust and create that atmosphere that they can share. How do you examine the survivor? Do you give them an option for examination or not? Or is it a must that if a survivor comes they need to be examined? So teaching other health care providers history-taking, examination, how to collect evidence, how to document evidence, and how to present evidence in court.
And I’ve been doing that continuously. So, again, I’m always reflecting and looking at what I am doing and what I can make better, and I started to say, oh, so this feels like I’m always waiting for things to happen for me to act. So now, I want to do more, and I want to do more on prevention because I don’t want to be feeling that I’m just sitting and waiting for things to happen.
I want to go around schools and talk to children about what consent is, what is right, what is not, what are the boundaries that they should have between themselves and their people or strangers, things like that.
And I want to go back to the community and talk to my community on how they can help survivors also return back to normalcy. Because one thing, if people find out that you have been sexually violated, that’s a story that everyone will talk about, people will look at you, and people will stigmatize you. Some communities will ostracize you. So those are the kind of conversations I want to have with my own community. And what can the people in the community do as active bystanders, because these things don’t happen always in silos, in closed rooms. People hear women shouting, people see women being pulled and taken to places that you can just see that they do not want. People even in restaurants or in nightclubs, they can see that a man is drugging a drink of a young lady, and they don’t say anything. So I have a problem with that.
And I want to have this conversation of how can you be an active bystander? How can you use your voice? What are the places you can, you can send this person who’s in this position? What can you do? How can you intervene in a way that is positive that will prevent this young woman from being violated?
So find out what’s going on in your community, talk to people, go to health facilities, and ask what is in place? Because also it’s something that’s not given priority. You’ll see that in many communities, there’s no budget for cases of sexual violence. People have no clear, are not sure even where to send survivors in.
So we need to know the referral pathway that a survivor can take when something happens. So it’s really, really important for all of us to think about what we can do as a person, and there are numerous opportunities for people to do something.
VOICE OVER: As we conclude our podcast, Suhaila talks about what the future holds for her and her plans to tackle the challenge of gender-based violence.
SUHAILA: I’m a co-founder of Gender Health Africa, and our mission is to have a society that is free from gender-based violence. And I also belong to a global roving team, working with United Nations Population Fund, and I go around different countries to build capacity of health care providers on how to manage rape cases. So, I’m excited about my work, as tough as it sounds. But I’m excited, I mean, I have this opportunity to go around all of Africa to build the capacity of health workers, and it’s something that gives me joy to know that if I build capacity of health workers here, the survivors will have quality care that they deserve.
VOICE OVER: Thank you, Suhaila, for all that you do and for being so determined in the fight to end G-B-V. You can find resources and learn more about ending gender-based-violence on the YALI website at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com/16days — 1-6-d-a-y-s. That’s yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com/16days.
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