Thinking back on her years as Afghanistan’s Minister of Health, Dr. Suraya Dalil recalls one unscheduled visitor who came to her office with a special request. Dr. Dalil had been appointed to the Ministry in 2010, more than a decade after Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and she was working in a building where, even as a physician and public health professional , she had not been permitted to cross the threshold a decade earlier simply because she was a woman. Now she led the Ministry, engaging with multiple stakeholders: parliamentarians, lawmakers, the finance minister and other cabinet members, national security, international donors and partners, and the media. Her days were busy, signing papers and responding to the constant challenge of unexpected crises such as suicide bombings and provincial epidemics. What could this visitor want?
He was “a traditional man from the southeastern part of Afghanistan,” Dr. Dalil told her audience on November 29, during a Voices in Leadership talk at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Some of you who know Afghanistan know what I mean.” The man came to ask official permission to enroll his daughter in a local midwifery education program. His home province had denied her, saying “that it was not possible, they cannot do it.” They told him, “‘Go to Kabul and get authorization from there’,” she recalls. “And he came to me and said, ‘Please, I want my daughter to be educated.’” Given restrictions on women in his traditional culture, further influenced by years under the Taliban, many would have seen his request as radical. “That is transformation,” said Dr. Dalil. “That is when you create demand. That is when you create change.”
As a leader from Afghanistan who is also a researcher, policy maker, practitioner, and mother of three, Dr. Dalil is a role model of the “courage to pursue something important, hard, uncharted,” said Incubator Faculty Director, Dr. Sue J. Goldie, Roger Irving Lee Professor of Public Health, who facilitated the Voices interview.
Raised in an educated family in Afghanistan, Dr. Dalil knew firsthand the importance of access to “public services, good governance, and peace.” This background shaped her beliefs and aspirations when the hospital she worked in was destroyed by fighting and rocket attacks. She fled with her family to the northern frontier, shifting her focus from surgery to work with children and families at risk. Visiting a graveyard of hundreds of children who had died of measles—easily prevented with vaccination—“I started to question serious issues from myself,” she said.
In the years that followed, Dalil worked with Afghan refugees through Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), then joined United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Afghanistan’s efforts on nutrition, immunization, and the reduction of maternal mortality. Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with nearly half of all women’s deaths between age 15 and 49 related to pregnancy. In 2005, Dr. Dalil received her Master’s in Public Health at the Harvard (now T.H. Chan) School, returning to work with UNICEF in Somalia before her appointment to the Afghanistan Ministry of Public Health in 2010. Throughout her career, her research has focused on health priority-setting, links between girls’ education and maternal health, food security and child survival, survival and development, and learning to look at child policies from a human rights perspective.
As Minister of Health, grounded in personal principles of responsibility and service—and with a very supportive husband—Dr. Dalil set herself the challenge to “do one thing every day that scares you.” Each day she sought to do something important, something outside her comfort zone that would support decision making and health for the people of Afghanistan. In 2015, the Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani appointed her Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the UN and International Organizations based in Geneva, and Ambassador to Switzerland. Building Afghanistan remains her priority focus.
“What is your hope for the future?” Dr. Goldie asked Dr. Dalil as the Voices conversation concluded. What words of wisdom did she have for others, particularly students who are thinking about global change in public health?
“I firmly believe that Afghanistan should be built by Afghans,” Dr. Dalil said. “It is for us to stay committed for the cause of the country, to stay optimistic. We have a number of young leaders who are educated, who are committed to the cause, development, prosperity, and peace for Afghanistan. We want to be helped. Please help Afghans to help themselves.”
Tune into the complete webcast, “Afghanistan: Reflections on My Journey,” to learn more about Dr. Dalil.