Meet Sharmin Sultana, an Ipas expert on the ground in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps

Monday, April 2, 2018

Sharmin Sultana

As Ipas has moved quickly in recent months to respond to the reproductive health needs of Rohingya refugees flowing into Bangladesh, Sharmin Sultana’s work has brought her repeatedly to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District.

An experienced reproductive health-care provider and clinical trainer, she is working with colleagues from Ipas Bangladesh and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to ensure the Rohingya women and girls caught up in this massive refugee crisis can prevent or safely end an unwanted pregnancy.

After going through a short Ipas training, paramedics, midwives and doctors working in the camps can provide menstrual regulation (as safe abortion is known in Bangladesh) as well as treatment for complications of unsafe abortion.

“Our clinical trainers are effective and competent,” Sultana proudly says of Ipas’s trainers. Here she talks about what it’s like to do this challenging work.

What is most difficult about this work?

Sultana: It has been really difficult to connect refugee women and girls with services at the health facilities; they simply don’t know that services are available to help them safely end a pregnancy. This in turn leads some women to resort to seeking unsafe, clandestine methods to end a pregnancy.

Another challenge has been overcoming the abortion stigma amongst health facility managers and staff. Many staff did not know menstrual regulation was legal. Further, many providers and other health staff are not initially comfortable talking about rape, gender-based violence, or abortion due to the stigma surrounding all those topics. We’ve conducted some activities to help reduce this stigma, but more are needed.

What do you see when you visit the camps now?

I’ve found that providers we trained are providing services very effectively and are getting support from our trainers when any question or problem arises. These providers have also connected with workers out in the camps to help link people with the new reproductive health services being offered.

How have you adapted Ipas trainings to meet pressing needs in the refugee camps?

We’ve changed the formal design and duration of our training and we’ve brought our trainers to the providers in the camps, rather than asking providers to travel for training. Demand for health services is so high that we couldn’t have providers take much time away from their health centers. We worked to motivate clinic managers to support the training program by explaining the great need for menstrual regulation services, and we involved nearby facilities who could refer cases as soon as trained providers were ready to apply their new skills.

Ipas Bangladesh responded so quickly to this crisis. How were you able to do this?

Our government is so supportive. We got quick approval from the government and other key stakeholders, and we have a good, effective partnership with UNFPA. And good communication has been crucial. We shared our plans with central and local-level government officials, involved government health facilities and the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Bangladesh, and held meetings with other stakeholders.

Learn more about Ipas's work with refugees in Bangladesh: Reproductive health care for Rohingya refugees.