Doctor treats the poorest of the poor

From the March 2016 issue of The Rotarian

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is the 11th-largest city on earth. Nearly a third of its 15 million residents live in trash-strewn slums, subsisting on less than $2 a day. Women have it worst: Second-class citizens, often married off in their midteens, many struggle to raise children in conditions most Westerners would find medieval. A recent study found that “65 percent of slum women share one toilet with more than seven families.”

Into this “difficulty” steps Hashrat Ara. “Difficulty” is her understatement of the challenges a physician faces in Washpur, one of Dhaka’s poorest townships. A vast maze of dirt-floored huts made of wood and corrugated metal, Washpur floods each monsoon season, leaving its inhabitants ankle-deep in polluted water. Yet life goes on – with help from one of Rotary International’s “Global Women of Action.”

“Call me Hashrat,” she says. “In Bangladesh, surnames are optional.” Her name led to some confusion when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon honored Hashrat as one of six Women of Action in November. The others all had two names. That led reporters to call her Dr. Hashrat Begum, not knowing that “Begum” is a title roughly equal to “Mrs.” It got worse: The spell-check function on English-language smartphones “corrected” her name to “Hashtag Begum.”

“My name doesn’t matter,” she says. “It is the work that matters.”

By any name, she’s one of the busiest people you’re likely to meet.

In 1981, after medical training in Bangladesh, Hashrat and her husband, a pediatrician, moved to Iran, where Hashrat ran a 20-bed maternity center for the Ministry of Health. They went for a most sensible reason: “Doctors’ salaries are higher there.” But five years of juggling motherhood – she and her husband had a son while in Iran and also have a daughter – and her duties at the maternity center led to a series of choices. “I had wanted to be an obstetrician in private practice,” she says, “but there was such need in Dhaka that I changed my path.” The family eventually moved home.

She went to work for Marie Stopes Bangladesh. Stopes, a British women’s rights pioneer in the early 1900s, advocated birth control and wrote a controversial book, Married Love, that was so frank about sex that no respectable Londoner could be seen reading it. The organization that bears her name today supports women in 39 nations – including Bangladesh, where Hashrat is regional medical adviser for Marie Stopes International.

“I saw homeless people in my city sleeping under the sky,” she recalls. “I saw sex workers who had no choice in their lives. How could a person see such need and not be moved by it? I wanted to do all I could for these people who had no hope, no help.”

Hashrat knew of Rotary through her brother, a club officer who “loved telling his Rotary stories,” tales of fellowship that made weekly meetings sound like the perfect blend of altruism and lunch. She joined the Rotary Club of Dhaka North West and found it more progressive than many clubs in more comfortable parts of the world. “For one thing, women were welcome.” Today her home club boasts 16 women among its 45 members. Being a Rotarian, she says, means “being part of something big. Ending polio. Setting an example for the world. One drawback is that we don’t do enough to promote our work. People still think it’s just old people sitting together and eating. I tell them Rotary can play a catalytic role, influencing entrepreneurs to support Service Above Self. We are seeing this happen in Bangladesh.”

With a grant from The Rotary Foundation, Hashrat started a free clinic for the poorest of Washpur’s poor, paying many of its operating expenses herself. In addition she offers vocational training programs for girls and sewing machines that allow women to become providers, even decision-makers, in their families. Eighty percent of the workers in her country’s booming garment industry are women, but almost all managers are men. She foresees a Bangladesh where that ratio is closer to even.

“I believe in equality,” she says.

K.M. Zainul Abedin, a past governor of District 3280 and a member of Hashrat’s club, calls her “hypnotic.” Abedin first saw her 10 years ago as she was explaining the facts of HIV/AIDS to a group of boys and girls. “Her easy communication about sex, a subject that is taboo in our society, convinced the participants to act as a peer group for HIV/AIDS awareness,” he says. There’s no telling how many lives her work saved. And she was just getting started.

Once she joined Rotary, Abedin and the other club members saw Hashrat throw herself into the club’s work with round-the-clock commitment. This was a doctor who made house calls to those without shelter. “I have accompanied her on late-night visits to the living sites of homeless people,” Abedin says, “people who are vulnerable to dysentery, jaundice, and fevers. Many suffer from malnutrition, clandestine abortions, sexually transmitted infections, rape, violence, drug addiction, physical and sexual harassment. Dr. Hashrat helps all she can, and as the excellent leader of our Train the Trainers program, she teaches others to help.”

Last fall, Rotary International President K.R. Ravindran sent a tweet that delighted Bangladeshis: “Dr. Hashrat coordinated the implementation of numerous health projects for underserved communities in Bangladesh.” That sentence, introducing Hashrat as one of the year’s Women of Action, set off a chain of events that thrilled – and wearied – the honoree. Preparing to meet Ravindran and Ban, she arranged for others to cover her duties in Washpur, then booked a two-day flight from Dhaka to New York, with a stop in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Then, hours before her flight took off, her mother died.

This is still difficult for her to discuss. With typical discipline, she made the funeral arrangements before leaving. Why endure a trip to another hemisphere so soon after her mother’s death? “Because this honor isn’t about me. I came to accept it for my family, my club, and my district. Most of all, it is about the work we do.”

Shortly before flying home, she pauses for a few minutes to discuss a day she’ll never forget. Sitting in the lobby of a Manhattan Hilton, resplendent in a multicolored sari and headscarf, she folds her hands and smiles.

How does she feel? “Exhausted. But happy.”

Looking back on her hours in New York, she says, “Rotary Day at the UN was a fantastic experience. I was impressed by all the high-rise buildings of New York and touched by how caring and cordial everyone was. The event was a huge inspiration for me and a tribute to women in the developing world.”

Soon she is back at work, greeting visitors under an electric-blue sky and a banner reading “Rotary Club of Dhaka North West – Mother and Child Care Centre.” Her patients dress as she does, in traditional garb, though there are several wide-eyed, shirtless boys and one, dressed up for a visit to the doctor, in a miniature shirt and tie. In most ways this is a day like any other, as a jet-lagged Hashrat takes temperatures and distributes medicine to grateful mothers and bawling children. Since 2010, the free clinic has aided more than 37,000 women, immunized more than 2,000 children, and even tended to the occasional grown man. Hashrat’s not the sort of doctor who turns patients away.

“We extend our hand to all,” she says.

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