Stitching Broken Spirits: The Unsung Warrior Who Nursed Biranganas Back to Hope

In the realm of public health, few names carry as much weight and admiration as that of Dr. Halida Hanum Akhter. This distinguished physician and public health legend graciously granted us a glimpse into her remarkable life, from her humble beginnings and educational journey to her family’s unwavering support. 

Dr. Akhter’s path led her to the prestigious John Hopkins University, where she honed her expertise and made significant contributions to the field. However, her story extends beyond the realm of academia and into the tumultuous times of the 1971 war, where she selflessly dedicated herself to the cause. Her post-war contributions at “Seba Sadan” have left an indelible mark on the lives of countless individuals. 

Share-Net Bangladesh considers itself truly fortunate to have this rare opportunity to delve into the inspiring life and experiences of Dr. Halida Hanum Akhter. This is the 1st part of a three-part interview. 

Tell us about your childhood and education

As the eldest of my four siblings, I naturally took on a role of responsibility and guidance, especially as my mother, a gynecologist, was often occupied with her demanding profession. Growing up, we were instilled with a sense of caring for one another, knowing that our mother’s dedication to her patients required our support. My father played a pivotal role in my mother’s career, standing by her side as she pursued her education and eventually became a doctor, despite marrying at a young age while still a student in ninth grade.

Traditionally, it was expected for me to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a doctor. After completing my Matric Exam (SSC) at Rajshahi Govt. PN Girls’ High School and my Intermediate (HSC) at Rangpur Carmichael College, I sought higher education in Rajshahi, my mother’s hometown. However, I had a strong desire to study in Dhaka, where most of my friends resided. With determination, I entrusted a friend to submit my admission form to Dhaka Medical College (DMC). When I received my interview card, I informed my parents of my decision to study in Dhaka. Initially hesitant, they eventually recognized my maturity and academic capabilities, granting me permission to pursue my education at DMC, even though I was only 17 years old at the time. The journey from Rangpur to Dhaka was arduous, involving long bus rides, multiple ferry crossings, a journey across the Jamuna River by boat, and finally, a train ride. Though challenging, those experiences hold a special place in my heart.

An intriguing twist in our story comes from my mother’s pursuit of an MBBS degree. Despite being an accomplished LMF (Ob-Gyn) doctor, she had not completed the full MBBS program, which required an additional two years of study. In my fourth year at DMC, I convinced my mother to sit for the MBBS exam. Supported by my father, she enrolled at Mitford Medical College & Hospital (now known as Sir Salimullah Medical College & Hospital). In 1968, I obtained my MBBS degree, followed by my mother in 1969. We then embarked on further studies together, pursuing the Member of College of Physicians and Surgeons (MCPS) qualification, which we both successfully achieved. This experience taught me the importance of reciprocating the support and care our parents have bestowed upon us from a young age whenever we have the chance and ability to do so.

In sharing my journey, I hope to highlight the profound impact parents have on our lives and emphasize the significance of offering our support in return when the opportunity arises.

Tell us about your experience during 1971

In 1971, my journey took an unexpected turn when I embarked on my first experience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. After completing my MCPS, my plan was to further specialise in gynaecology and paediatrics. However, life had other plans as I got married and became pregnant with my first child. The doctors advised me to take some rest during this time. It was during this period that I came across an advertisement by the Family Planning Board, seeking a Medical Officer for their mobile team. Intrigued by this new opportunity and uninterested in the traditional role of a doctor, which mainly involved consultations and fees, I decided to apply for the job. To my delight, I was offered the position.

My initial posting was at the Family Planning Board office on Green Road, where I worked under the guidance of Assistant Director Dr. Atikur Rahman and Deputy Director Dr. Akhtari Iqbal. Eventually, I was assigned to the Urban Clinic located on Nurjahan Road in Mohammadpur. As the in-charge of the clinic, my primary responsibility was to provide family planning services to the patients. At that time, contraceptive options were limited, with only IUDs, high-dose oral pills, and a few other methods available. The three-month contraceptive option, DMPA, was not yet accessible. Furthermore, the concept of contraceptive use was not widespread in Bangladesh. Recognizing the need for medical services beyond family planning, I began seeing general patients as well, providing them with necessary check-ups and care.

After about six to seven months, the Family Planning Board offered me an opportunity to participate in a six-month training course in the United States, sponsored by USAID. Alongside two other female Bangladeshi doctors, I eagerly accepted the offer. In October 1970, we, three doctors from East Pakistan, joined six doctors from West Pakistan for an orientation session in Washington, D.C., before being taken to The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. The training aimed to equip us with modern family planning practices and was part of the efforts supported by USAID.

This experience marked a significant turning point in my career, exposing me to advanced knowledge and practices in the field of family planning. The journey that began with unexpected circumstances had now opened doors to greater opportunities for me not only as a medical professional but also as a public health expert. Little did I know then that this experience would shape my future career in family planning and enable me to contribute to improving the healthcare landscape in Bangladesh.

Our training had a duration of 6 months. But at the very end of our 6-month training, the West-Pakistani army attacked Dhaka in March. We got stuck in the USA, we were worried for our home and our family members. Then the US government decided to keep us for 6 more months and observe the situation for our safe repatriation. In the meantime, they sent a to a nearby clinic for learning practical procedures of MR and other maternity training in Baltimore. But after 6 months, they told us that they couldn’t keep us anymore. We were also eager to get back to Bangladesh, as all three of us came to the USA leaving behind our toddlers back in Bangladesh. So, on October 1971, we get back to Bangladesh.

They kept us for six more months. After October 1971, they said that they can’t keep us any longer as they kept us for a year with 6 months’ budget, so now we have to leave. During the war, many reporters went to America. There was a senior brother among them who was pursuing his PhD. He invited us to a farewell dinner along with those journalists. When we were walking, the journalists said that things will get better after a few people are killed. We were right next to them when they said that. I was hearing them, and after a discussion with them I learnt the plan. They didn’t realise that we were Bengalis. Hearing them, we were worried. We stayed but they went back.

Back in the country, USAID said that they planned to go back to the country on October 21, so we came back to the country. Back in the country the war was still going on, intellectuals were caught. Our home was in Shatrasta, Tejgaon, we had a quarter there. My husband worked at the Technical Teachers’ Training College, he was an Assistant Professor. We stayed there, but we saw that bombs were thrown, people were caught and taken away, so we didn’t stay there. My father’s side, my siblings, my husband’s family, about 20 of us, along with another family, we left the house with our belongings.

We went to Nabinagar and got in a boat. There was a pregnant woman among one of the families with us. I delivered her baby on the boat. It was her baby and everything went well. We lived in Brahmunbaria for a few days, then the country got independence and we returned back to Dhaka.

After returning, when I joined the department, they told me that they opened a service clinic and would station me there. There is a building called ‘Shada Bahar’ at Dhanmondi 3. They opened a clinic, and that clinic was called ‘Sheba Shodon’. I joined there. Women who were 28- 30 weeks pregnant from being raped by the Pakistani army, were sent here from the field through the Department of Family Planning’s District Officer. We saw that there were 10- 12 beds there and everything was necessary, just like a hospital. Dr Khaleq was in- charge of that, we were assigned our duties. There was another doctor, counsellors. There were also foreign doctors among us who were experts in Gynae- Obstetrics. There was Malcolm Porsche, from the International Planned Parenthood Federation. There was also Jefrrey Davis from Australia. They were obstetricians and they were experts and they showed us new devices, and trained us on different methods.

Later, they placed me in a clinic specialised in contraception, women’s health, abortion. I observed these. I served there for four months. In my experience I saw that women were crying. They started crying the very moment I tried talking to them, they were in trauma. They can’t even describe what happened to them, so I decided not to ask anything. We already know what they have gone through. After delivering the baby, they didn’t even want to look at the child. We took the children and reached out to Mother Teresa Organisation, and other organisations for adoption in foreign countries. We nurtured the babies until a certain time and then they came to take the babies away.

When those women got better, they told us that no one reached out to them from their families, but no one called them. When their families brought them here, everyone knew that they were actually raped, so they didn’t want to take them back. Then we discussed what we could do for them? We discussed this with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and he said to start a home for women. We rented a home and kept them there for a few days, arranged meals for them and trained them on handicrafts. I was involved with them to follow up with their medical conditions. I didn’t participate in the war, but after returning to Dhaka I felt the war through those women. I wondered if I was in the place of one of those women, what would happen? I will have to go through that person too. Thinking of that brings tears to my eyes. The women who we gave the title of ‘Birangana’, I don’t know in which language to address them. Everything is tiny compared to any title that we bestow upon them. People have lost their lives in the war, but these women’s contribution can never be measured. I was not part of the war, but after returning I was able to contribute for 4 months.

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