In a patriarchal society where women encounter obstacles daily, Dr. Bushra Al-Aghbari stands out. The manager of eight mobile health teams and several health facilities in one of the most remote areas in the world, she has become a fearless advocate for women even as her country suffers the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
“Being a woman, it’s not enough to be strong and stand up for myself, but to stand up for everybody else who needs me,” she says with a characteristic look of determination in her eyes.
“Other doctors told me, ‘Bushra, you are freshly graduated, you can’t cope with all this,’” she says, explaining her decision to move away from her family home in the city of Aden to a rural area where basic necessities are scant. “But all this talk was just encouragement. It motivated me to challenge myself, because I have a goal to help the women in these areas.”
Being a woman, it’s not enough to be strong and stand up for myself, but to stand up for everybody else who needs me.
Bushra has been a reproductive health officer with the International Rescue Committee since 2019. Today, she manages EU-funded mobile medical units. Her team of health care workers drive into the mountains to visit remote camps, settlements and villages. There, they provide pregnant women and babies vital support otherwise unavailable.
“Our traditions and customs have prevented women from going to male doctors,” she says. “So even when they’re in need, they just suffer at home. Women tend to be depressed because of the unstable situation and fear what’s coming next.”
Having entered its seventh year of conflict, Yemen faces a multitude of humanitarian disasters. Price hikes, shortages of fuel and food, inadequate health care and ongoing conflict have wreaked havoc. Widespread famine is a constant threat.
In 2020, COVID-19 severely complicated an already untenable situation. At the peak of the outbreak in Yemen, hospitals were turning away patients in hopes of reducing the spread of the virus. “Many women were wondering where to deliver their babies and how to protect themselves,” says Bushra.
With her fellow midwives and doctors, Bushra created a WhatsApp group to keep in contact with patients using their mobile phones. The medical team can follow up with patients, arrange individual consultations, and keep them current on hospital capacity, offering them a vital portal to seek help during a particularly turbulent time. “I consider each day as a new chance for life,” says Bushra about the daily challenges she confronts.
Bushra’s journey as a humanitarian began in 2018 at her local hospital in Aden, where as an intern she gained valuable experience working alongside experienced doctors, nurses and midwives. After she graduated from medical school, she decided to move to a rural village in Al-Dhale’e, located in southwestern Yemen.
I consider each day as a new chance for life.
“It was a transformative point in my life,” she recalls. “Because it’s not like a city. You don’t have good access to basic services such as the internet—or electricity.” Her family was against the move, but Bushra persevered. “Women suffer, and no one knows about them. They live away from hospitals and need someone to help them, so I moved closer to them. That experience created a new Bushra.”
Now her family supports her work and regularly offers words of encouragement to keep her spirits high when she feels lonely. “My dad always calls me, telling me I am strong and brave,” says Bushra. “My mom also sends me the cookies and chocolate I miss from Aden.”
Despite the hardships, Bushra finds joy in her work. “The moment I reach home after a long day and put my head on my pillow, I remember the appreciation in people’s eyes when I’ve helped them,” she says. “Those are the moments I feel most proud of.”
Having boldly defied the societal norms designed to hold her back, she shares some wise words for girls hoping to embark on a similar journey. “My advice for young girls is to have strong faith in themselves,” she says. “Women who break down barriers are those who ignore limits."