Even from a young age, growing up in far northern Bangladesh, Kaniz Fatema has been determined to help people.

Today she is a midwife working with the International Rescue Committee in Cox’s Bazar, on the country's southeast coast. Nearly one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are living in nearby Kutupalong, an overcrowded refugee camp where women and girls, especially, struggle to get the health care they need. Kaniz tells us about her experience as a female staff member working on the frontlines of one of the world’s largest refugee crisis.

Kaniz Fatema works for the IRC as a midwife in Cox's Bazar.
Kaniz Fatema works for the IRC as a midwife in Cox's Bazar.
Photo: IRC

“How did I end up becoming a midwife? I guess you can trace this back to my childhood.

I have been so lucky to grow up in a family who have supported me throughout my life. My parents have always wanted my younger sister and I to have an education. My father is my main inspiration—he taught me to value my independence as a woman. From my parents I have learned that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything.

This is why I chose to push myself from a young age. Getting involved in activities outside of school eventually led me to win a scholarship to train as a paramedic. I remember how excited I was! My family were so proud of me.

Even during my scholarship days I was never fazed by being a woman in the medical profession. I remember one day we had a team-building workshop where we played a cricket match. As you may know, cricket is an incredibly popular sport in Bangladesh, so everyone on my course, both men and women, was involved. It was a brilliant game, and best of all, I was awarded the player of the match! I learned from this experience never to consider myself any less than a man. 

It was a great pleasure to study medicine and paramedic skills. It made me realize that I all I want to do in this world is help people. After my scholarship studies, I found a job working for an international organization that specialized in maternal and children’s health: this is how I first trained to become a midwife.

I have been working as a midwife with the IRC for around a year. I remember when I first started this job, when I told everyone that I was going far away from home to work in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, many people discouraged me. They said: “Life will be too difficult” or “It is too far away, you will never manage.” I ignored them. I wanted to take on the challenge.

Kaniz Katema works with a client
Kaniz Fatema works with a client.
Photo: IRC

But when I first arrived in Cox’s Bazar, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the crisis that lay before me. I felt insignificant. It was like my work as a midwife was a drop in the ocean: No matter how much you do, the need is always there. The numbers are huge. Today almost one million Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh.

Another challenge I had was being unable to speak the language. At the beginning, I couldn’t understand people, which was particularly difficult when speaking to the people we serve and trying to understand their needs.

However I was soon able to overcome this. I worked hard to learn the language. Through listening to people, I have also learned more about the atrocities and trauma that many Rohingya women had faced.

It is so important that I form relationships with the women I work for. Now many of them don’t just come to me for treatment, they also come to share their concerns and thoughts with me, because they feel safe. I think this is the aspect of my work of which I am most proud.”

Learn more

The IRC provides vital health and protection services in Cox’s Bazar, with a particular focus on protecting vulnerable women and girls. Learn more about our work in Bangladesh.

Kaniz Fatema’s lifesaving work would not be possible without EU Humanitarian Aid, which supports the IRC to provide vital health support for Rohingya women in Cox’s Bazar.

This story was first published by IRC Europe.