Saima Wazed | Rise of the daughter
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Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s daughter faced greater scrutiny in the run-up to the election for the post of the WHO’s regional director for South-East Asia

November 05, 2023 05:48 am | Updated 07:19 am IST

Her victory came after a spell of sharp media attention, criticism and allegations of nepotism. Born to a well-known political family in Bangladesh, Saima Wazed is now set to lead the World Health Organization (WHO) in South-East Asia as its regional director for five years.

She secured eight out of 10 votes against Shambhu Prasad Acharya, a senior WHO official proposed by Nepal, Bangladesh’s neighbour. Ms. Wazed, who advocates mental health policy, will succeed Poonam Khetrapal Singh, an Indian national, who became the first woman to assume the office of WHO regional director for South-East Asia in 2014. In 2018, WHO member states elected Khetrapal Singh for a second five-year term.

Member states voted to nominate Ms. Wazed during a closed session in New Delhi on November 1. The nomination will be submitted to the WHO Executive Board during its 154th session, taking place in Geneva in January. The newly appointed regional director will take office on February 1.

After Bangladesh’s proposal became public, some media outlets turned the spotlight on her raising questions of nepotism as her mother, Sheikh Hasina, is the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. But Ms. Wazed argued that those articles ignored her professional credentials. “The overt and intentional erasure of my experience, and the attendant reduction of me to being simply my mother’s daughter, is sexism and must be called out as such,” she said in an opinion piece in response to the media criticism.

Ms. Wazed also resists the perception that she has always lived a life of privilege. Despite being born in Bangladesh as the granddaughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, she wrote on her website, “my earliest memories were that of growing up in India as a refugee”. She added: “Trauma, secrecy, heightened concerns with security while always being aware I was not like everyone else, were second nature to me.”

Ms. Wazed portrayed herself as someone assimilating into diverse cultures, saying she spoke Hindi fluently as a child with neighbours and friends, spoke Bangla at home, and learnt English in school. “Celebrating Diwali and Holi with others, and watching my mother pray namaz were typical for us,” she said.

Her young adult years were spent in Florida, living, learning, and working among what she said was a “melting pot” of European, Asian, Caribbean, and South American cultures that expanded my knowledge of family dynamics, religious, and socio-cultural norms and practices”.

Additional leverage

There’s no denying that 15 years of the Awami League rule in Bangladesh in three straight terms led by her mother gave her leverage for work on advocacy and policy development in the health sector. That enabled her to better understand the economic and political issues at play in the health sector. Ahead of the WHO election, she attended an array of meetings with global leaders, often with her mother, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi in September. She also attended the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in August, where she met China’s President Xi Jinping.

The WHO election generated sharp attention from regional and international news outlets expressing alarm at her candidacy and doubt about her suitability for the role. In response, Ms. Wazed claimed that the arguments in those articles were based on “damaging biases” and perpetuated “harmful stigmas and stereotypes”.

“While I accept it is inevitable that there will be greater scrutiny of me due to my mother’s position, what is unfortunate is the erasure of my years of work, study and accomplishments,” Ms. Wazed wrote in the opinion piece.

Despite being in the public domain, she contended, the articles avoid mentioning her work with Chatham House’s Global Health Programme or its Commission for Universal Health. She mentions that she has been an adviser to the WHO’s Director General on mental health and autism, or that she has been a member of the WHO’s Expert Advisory Panel on Mental Health for almost a decade. Now with the storm dissipating, Ms. Wazed will have to return to her remit to continue to work for the “most vulnerable” not only in Bangladesh, but in the region as a whole. “I will not back down,” she said.

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