“For fellow women and young girls: whatever it is you’re doing please keep on pushing and make sure you believe that you can always be better for yourselves and your community.” Dr. Saliem Mekonnen
We celebrate women. Q&A has decided to dedicate this issue to honoring young Eritrean women in action. Dr. Saliem Mekonnen, 29, works at Amatere Maternity Health Center in Massawa. She is currently training for emergency caesarean section. Her life long journey towards becoming the health specialist she has become is what we think is worth sharing with our readers today.
- Thank you for your time! Care to introduce yourself?
Hello, I am Dr. Saliem. I work at Massawa Maternity Health Center, but currently I am a general physician in Asmara as I am taking part in training for emergency caesarean section. It is a pleasure to be here with you.
- Being a doctor has been a lifelong journey for you. What inspired you to be one?
My father’s friend was a childhood inspiration. Every time he’d pass by our house, I’d remind myself that, one day, I would be like him. As I grew up, my inspirations became many and they were being drawn from my surroundings. I first wanted to specialize in psychology but then when I got to medical school, I realized I needed to work on women’s wellbeing.
- And why is that?
I can say that over several years I came to realize how important it is for a society to invest on girls’ and women’s rights, education and wellbeing. It is actually an endeavor that ensures the growth and wellbeing of a community. Thereafter, I decided to be part of the input towards empowering and safeguarding women’s health.
- What was it like to be a medical student?
It was tough. Day in day out, it was a competition with myself and my fellow classmates. School was demanding so you had to be meticulous. There were moments when I had to give up family moments because I was either in class or preparing for something. At times, it felt as if you had withdrawn from social life in general. Though it is by choice, it gets to you in the long run. And for a female medical doctor, the journey is even tougher.
- Can you please elaborate on that? Why is choosing to be a medical doctor challenging for young female students?
Clearly, our society has undergone major changes regarding female emancipation. However, we still are expected to fulfill some duties that according to the general norm have to be done when “we’re still young”. For instance: getting married and looking after a family. Medical school takes a long time to complete compared to other fields of study in college. Eight to nine years are the basic requirements. And if you specialize, then that will mean some extra couple of years. At this point, choosing to be at medical school is a commitment that requires female students to be able to compromise on other aspects of life. For many parents in our community, the dream of seeing their educated daughter get married and become a mother is somewhat a nostalgia they long for. But still, speaking on behalf of other doctors like myself, I can say that it gives me a pleasure to tell you that many young female health professionals hold on to their dreams and professions knowing that one day it will all pay off.
- How are female doctors perceived by our community?
Oh, there are some instances that leave me displeased. For example- unless I introduce myself as a ‘Doctor’ first, people would still refer to me as a nurse. In some communities there are assumption that female health professionals cannot be more than nurses. This is demeaning to female professionals who work extremely hard amidst a general conviction that female health professionals can’t do much. Female health professionals need to be encouraged and respected at all costs. Therefore, I firmly believe that female doctors need to be commended for their efforts.
- How about at school, do female medical students face discrimination?
I can’t say because whether one student, regardless of gender, succeeds or not is up to him or her. Challenges are everywhere and how a student works through them while doing well at school is part of the learning process one has to craft. We have a system that encourages education no matter what gender a student is. Therefore that doesn’t seem to be an issue, really.
- You are working at Amatere Maternity Health Center in Massawa; can you please share your experience with us?
The fact that I am away from my family and what I am used to having in Asmara is actually quite challenging but it’s making me more independent. I am serving at a hospital where my effort is dearly appreciated by my patients. FGM and harmful practices are still being fought against and this special fact has encouraged me even more to be devoted towards women’s wellbeing. I think that maybe if I had been working in Asmara the idea of getting training in emergency caesarean section wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. Working in Massawa widened my perspective and gave me a clear vision of how I want to put my profession to good use for the wellbeing of women, which is eventually also the wellbeing of the entire community.
- Why are you fond of directing your profession towards women and their wellbeing?
The role of a mother is incomparable to anyone’s. I believe women who come to health centers seeking medical help need to be comforted and not feel shy so that they could explain what’s ailing them and be treated. In Eritrea we have a lot of male gynecologist, which is good; no arguments there, but it would be even better if there were more women gynecologists. And second, I love babies. They are adorable. This makes the long days’ hard work worth it!
- At the end, is there anything you want to say?
People may not like it, but I am a feminist. I want to remind men in general that being equal doesn’t mean having women carry weight but to be respected and supported in their respective roles. Also, for fellow women and young girls, whatever it is you’re doing please keep on pushing and make sure you believe that you can always be better for yourselves and your community.