From Where I Stand: Empowering Women Through Medicine
The journey of Dr. Sara Al Reefy, national winner of the Bahraini Female Entrepreneur Seal “Imtaz”, to promote gender equality and breast cancer awareness in Bahrain
Written interview with Dr. Sara Al Reefy – Bahrain/Cairo.
I come from a culture where many women feel embarrassed to be examined by a male surgeon, especially when it comes to conditions in their private areas, such as breast cancer or hemorrhoids. As a result, patients may refuse treatment or experience delays in diagnosis, as the number of female surgeons in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region is very limited. From this perspective, I realized that as a doctor, I should specialize in surgery to help more women receive timely and confidential diagnosis and treatment that aligns with their religious and cultural views.
Furthermore, breast cancer cases are increasing worldwide and especially in our region. Thus, I decided to sub-specialize in Oncoplastic Breast Surgery, which allows me to treat women with breast cancer while simultaneously reconstructing the breast to preserve femininity and enhance quality of life post-treatment.
The Supreme Council for Women (SCW) in Bahrain has contributed to empowering Bahraini women by leading reforms that promote gender equality in the workplace, protect maternity leave, and grant women access to proper healthcare, among other efforts. These reforms help women achieve financial freedom and reach their goals.
My contribution to women's empowerment lies in establishing a healthcare facility that screens women for breast cancer, which is one of the most common threats to women's health, and ensures early diagnosis to reduce mortality rates. My entire team consists of Bahraini women who share my mission and vision. We aim to scale up our successful model to the rest of the world to combat more deaths and save more lives.
Being a surgeon is not easy, particularly during residency training in the surgical department, where you are expected to attend alternate 24-hour shifts and work long hours in the operating room. Covering trauma cases, such as road traffic accidents with massive bleeding, was a challenge on its own. Some surgeons believed that women would unlikely be able to handle the stress, both physically and emotionally, but they were wrong. Women have proven to be excellent surgeons worldwide, treating patients with compassion and skill.
I still remember being nine months pregnant and handling a trauma case in the operating room. My water broke, and the labor pains kicked in. I handed over the case to my colleagues and went to the labor room to have my own baby! It was the talk of the town for the day. After my maternity leave was over, I established a new rule that protects the rights of female surgeons to be exempted from operating beyond the eighth month of pregnancy. Fellow female surgeons worldwide have appreciated this and have pushed for the same right in their countries.
If we want to empower women, we must bridge the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). These fields are essential and pay well, making them the ideal career paths for financial independence. Encouraging girls to choose STEM specialties should start in school, where the fear of math competitions can be tackled at a young age. We must encourage more girls to choose STEM specialties and bridge the current gap.
Our population of Bahrain and the GCC is growing, and the female-to-male ratio in the health industry is also shifting in favor of women. This is a positive sign that we are making progress towards gender equality. According to a report by WHO Bahrain, around 90 per cent of the dedicated laboratory and testing workforce responding to the COVID-19 pandemic was female.
Bahraini women are lucky to have the infrastructure set and ready in the Kingdom for them to achieve their goals. With continued collaboration and perseverance, we can ensure that women's contributions are recognized and rewarded, and that their safety and well-being are protected. By addressing these issues, we can improve gender equality and make a positive impact for global statistics on women’s empowerment. I aspire to see every Bahraini woman happy, healthy, well-educated, secured, safe and wealthy. Because we are the pearls of the GCC and we deserve to shine.