Women’s History Month: These are the Boss Ladies Speaking Out

Whether it’s advocating for safe abortion care and access to medicines, or condemning the bombing of hospitals, these women around the world are speaking out to empower others and protect patients. They will not be silent.

Doctors Without Borders
5 min readMar 8, 2019


Meet just a few of these inspiring women we’re highlighting for Women’s History Month.

“We will not leave patients behind. And we will not be silent. Seeking or providing health care must not be a death sentence… Make no mistake: we will relentlessly denounce attacks on health care. We will speak out loudly and with force about what we witness in the field.”

On May 3, 2016, Dr. Joanne Liu, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International President, addressed the United Nations Security Council. Following the bombing of numerous MSF hospitals and supported facilities in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, Joanne demanded they pass a resolution to ensure the impartial provision of health care in conflict.

“You will be judged not on your words today, but on your actions. Your work has only begun. Accountability begins with independent and impartial fact finding. Perpetrators cannot be investigators, judges and juries.”

The UN adopted the resolution (2286), but to this day, attacks on hospitals, medical facilities, and health workers continue with impunity. Patients, hospitals, and health care workers are #NotATarget.

“How many more people will have to die or go deaf waiting to access safer and more effective drugs that can save their lives without such devastating side effects?”

Nandita Venkatesan is from Mumbai and is a drug-resistant tuberculosis [DR-TB] survivor. Nandita and Phumeza Tisile survived one of the deadliest forms of TB — then they took on a pharmaceutical giant.

They filed a patent challenge in India in an attempt to block Johnson & Johnson (J&J) from extending its monopoly on bedaquiline, a critical medicine in the treatment of [DR-TB].

Both women survived [DR-TB] but lost their hearing because of the toxicity of their treatments. They are now fighting to ensure that newer drugs like bedaquiline — which are safer and more effective — are made affordable and accessible to everybody with DR-TB so fewer people have to use painful and toxic alternatives.

“I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through what I did with DR-TB. Pharmaceutical corporations like J&J should stop controlling the price of the drug that will restrict people’s access to safer and more effective tuberculosis treatment,” said Phumeza.

“Before I started working at MSF field projects, I saw abortion as more of a political issue, or as an aspect of women’s rights. But now that I’ve seen women and girls in need of safe abortion, day after day, with my own eyes, I’ve come to understand abortion as a medical necessity, something that has a very real impact on people’s lives.”

Dr. Manisha Kumar is a family medicine doctor and the coordinator of the Task Force for Safe Abortion Care, a project that aims to increase access to contraceptive and safe abortion care services offered by MSF projects.

Unsafe abortion remains one of the five leading causes of maternal mortality, despite the fact that it is almost always preventable.

“It’s an honor for me to be able to fight every day for women and girls, to help them get the high-quality medical care they need. I know that we’re preventing maternal deaths and suffering.”

Read more about Manisha’s experience in her Medium piece.

“These children existed. Right now on the Mediterranean, more people are dying. And there’s no one to even bear witness.”

In 2016, nurse Courtney Bercan worked with MSF on a search-and-rescue boat in the Mediterranean, the Dignity I. In December 2018, MSF was forced to stop operations of its last rescue boat in the Mediterranean, the Aquarius, due to political pressure from several European countries. With the closure of the Aquarius, gone is the most basic humanitarian and legal commitment: saving lives at sea.

This news triggered harrowing memories for Courtney. She tells her story in this Medium piece.

“I’ve seen a lot of women in my life dying during delivery or after delivery because of PPH (post-partum hemorrhage) or a complication of delivery. And I’ve seen children growing without their mother. It’s really a very sad thing for me. And I decided in the future to become a midwife, and now, since 10 years I’m working as a midwife and I’m really happy about this.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Aqila was first a patient in our maternity ward, and is now an Afghan midwife supervisor at the MSF hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“It’s not easy to for a girl to become a midwife…around Kabul it’s okay, but we have a lot of provinces where the security is not good, the women are not allowed to go outside the home. It’s not easy to go to get an education as a midwife, in midwifery. But we need more midwives.”

“It is absolutely disgraceful to say that MSF’s mental health care is no longer required; the mental health situation of the refugees indefinitely held on Nauru is devastating.”

Psychiatrist Beth O’Connor worked with asylum seekers, refugees, and local residents on the island of Nauru. Many of these individuals suffer severe mental health conditions.

In October of 2018, the government of Nauru made a sudden decision to prohibit us from providing desperately needed mental health care.

And just last month, they prohibited us from helping our former patients remotely using telemedicine. We condemned the cruel action taken by the Nauruan government.

“Our patients often describe their situation as far worse than prison because in prison you know when you can get out. While in my professional opinion there is no therapeutic solution for these patients as long as they are trapped on the island, I fear the withdrawal of MSF’s psychiatric and psychological health care from Nauru will claim lives.”

“What a man can do, a woman can do.”

This is Poni Betty, the only female MSF mechanic. Poni has been working with us in South Sudan since 2015. She maintains our fleet of land cruisers that deliver medical care in remote areas.

“I’m encouraging ladies to join the mechanics. We women, we can do it. When I go home to my mum she says, ‘this is our girl…this is an engineer’.”



Doctors Without Borders

Medical aid org working globally to assist people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe. http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org