Sat, 15 June 2024
The Daily Ittefaq

Setting the Record Straight

Update : 09 Oct 2023, 19:43

This year, three of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) six regions elect new Regional Directors (RD). The South-East Asia Region (SEARO) is composed of only 11 Member States, yet is home to over a quarter of the world’s population. Two SEARO Member States, Nepal and Bangladesh, have nominated their candidates to contest for RD.

I have the privilege of being Bangladesh’s nominated candidate.

The SEARO RD election has generated a surprising amount of attention and news coverage, and several prominent regional & international publications have published pieces expressing alarm at my candidacy, and doubts about my suitability for the role.

In building their argument these articles rely on damaging biases, and perpetuate harmful stigmas and stereotypes.

The first contention is that because my mother is the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, my nomination must be fuelled by nepotism.

While I accept it is inevitable that there will be greater scrutiny of me due to my mother’s position, what is unfortunate is the erasure of my years of work, study and accomplishments.

Despite being in the public domain, the articles avoid mentioning my work with Chatham House’s Global Health Program or their Commission for Universal Health.

They ignore that I have been an advisor to WHO’s DG on Mental Health & Autism, or that I have been a member of the WHO’s Expert Advisory Panel on Mental Health for almost a decade.

They do not mention that I am Chief Advisor to Bangladesh’s National Mental Health Strategic Plan, or that I was a Technical Expert for Bangladesh’s National Mental Health Act of 2018.

They ignore any of my teaching engagements, and do not inform their readers that the WHO awarded me in 2014 for Excellence in Public Health.

The articles also neglect to mention that I am currently finishing my Doctorate in Education (EdD) in Organisational Leadership. This is a practitioner-doctorate for complex problem solving to improve the performance of organisations and individuals.

As Key Note Speaker at the Dissemination of the World Mental Health Report, and National Mental Health Strategic Plan 2020-2030, Bangladesh, 2022. Credit: Jishan Sultana

As countless women around the world will attest, we are sadly used to differing standards when being compared professionally to men. The overt and intentional erasure of my experience, and the attendant reduction of me to being simply my mother’s daughter, is sexism and must be called out as such.

The articles proceed to cast doubt as to whether my chosen area of study and work – psychology – is a suitable specialisation for one vying for the role of RD.

When I started my career, I knew that a lot of work needed to be done to mainstream matters of mental health. The persistent stigma which dogged mental health was dangerous and damaging, and I set about to try right this. In the context of South Asian cultures, open and honest discussions about mental health were unfortunately taboo. Over many years of hard work, we have been able to change this somewhat – but I acknowledge that there is still much work to be done.

This stigma is what commentators feed in to when they insinuate that other aspects of medical science are preferable over mental health specialists in this election.

The WHO itself reminds us that it “continues to work with its partners to ensure mental health is valued, promoted, and protected,” and that “one in eight people globally are living with mental health conditions.”

Given this reality, it is highly irresponsible of these articles to continue to minimise the work of psychologists and other related specialists.

On behalf of my broader profession I would like to state loudly and unequivocally – mental health specialists are in no way inferior or unsuited for leadership roles in public health. In fact, I contend that it is desirable for one with such a background to have a seat at the leadership table alongside the existing technocrats and bureaucrats in the WHO.

Finally, some of the reporting on the SEARO RD election makes unfounded claims that Bangladesh is waging a political campaign of arm-twisting and coercion to ensure victory for its candidate.

Quite frankly, the lack of faith that these commentators have in the SEARO Member States is appalling. Each Member State has the agency and independence to assess the candidates and make an informed choice. No amount of scaremongering will change that.

Instead of political pieces focusing on individuals, a responsible writer would correctly frame the choice in this election as that of a policy choice between Bangladesh and Nepal’s candidates.

This would lead to a more reasonable consideration about which of these two countries has better public health outcomes, and therefore more likely to make better choices for the public health of the region. I am proud of the many public health successes of my country, and I am proud to be nominated by Bangladesh for Regional Director of WHO SEARO.

The reaction we are seeing in this campaign reaffirms two unfortunate truths. The first is that challenging the status quo in large established global networks and organisations always generates a partisan pushback. The second is that women competing for positions of power in major institutions face opposition laced with a vicious strain of sexism. In this campaign we have a toxic cocktail of both.

But I will not back down. I will continue advocating for the most vulnerable amongst us, I will continue telling my regional neighbours my vision for our shared future, and I will continue fighting for what I think is right.

My message to fear-mongering commentators is simple: do not be afraid of a woman or her experience, do not be afraid of mental health specialists, and trust the Member States to make the best decision for themselves.

Saima Wazed wears multiple hats including being the Chairperson of the National Advisory Committee for Autism and NDDs, Bangladesh, Chairperson of Shuchona Foundation, and Thematic Ambassador for Vulnerability for the Climate Vulnerable Forum. For more information, please visit and

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