Mehreen Karim is an educator with HEART Women and Girls, which promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities. She is the former Digital Communications Specialist for NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, and is obtaining her Masters in Public Health at New York University. Mehreen is the latest in a series of faith-based healthcare advocates and providers participating in our Faith in Healthcare "Five Questions" interview.
MK: I grew up as a first-generation South Asian Muslim woman in America, so I became familiar with the ways that cultural norms and being a woman of color in the U.S. affects how we learn-or don’t learn, too often—about our health.
I think the most important work I do is taking comprehensive, evidenced-based women’s health information and making it relevant and meaningful for smaller, underserved communities. The prerequisite for women to accessing sufficient health services is for them to understand the services they need to begin with. And while there are a lot of great women’s health organizations out there disseminating information to the best of their abilities, there is no one-size-fits-all way of delivering that information to communities while accounting for their socio-cultural nuances.
That means that a lot of the outreach does not connect with some micro-communities. The language being used to convey women’s healthcare information from mainstream organizations is not translating well to the communities who need it the most, including Muslim-American communities.
So HEART Women and Girls promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities through health education, advocacy, research and training. Their work is culturally-sensitive and developmentally appropriate for the audiences that they serve.
This could look like trained anti-sexual assault advocates to working one-on-one with survivors at Muslim student organizations in universities, or creating toolkits about how Muslim parents can talk about sexual health with their children.
- What motivates you to do your work?
MK: My upbringing in Georgia—an area that is predominately a white evangelical Christian, conservative community—showed me how the stigma against women’s health education is a universal issue. I learned early on that it is not only immigrant communities that have stigmas about women’s sexual health and that leads to gaps in education and healthcare.
Our middle schools handed out abstinent-till-marriage cards; needless to say, my Facebook feed is filled with childhood friends that soon became teen moms. I saw that lack of access to comprehensive sex education and reproductive health cause suffering for many women around me. I can’t stand watching my loved ones feel helpless when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health. It frustrates me, but ultimately motivates me to keep breaking barriers and stigmas wherever I have the privilege to.
- What are the biggest challenges you—or those you advocate for—face?
MK: On a macro level, the U.S. not prioritizing the right to healthcare for all obviously has a very negative impact on the care women receive. Even if I am well-off in the United States and go to my primary care physician, I may be told very little about my reproductive health or anything specific about my health as a woman. I would have to go to an OB/GYN.
The fact that I would have to find a specialist to identify fundamental health issues shows we are not close to doing justice to women and their right to healthy lives. That example solely applies to those lucky enough to have healthcare. Now can you imagine the hoops that millions of women with lower incomes have to jump through in order to receive their basic needs?
The capitalist foundation of our nation’s healthcare system is making it nearly impossible for vulnerable women to access basic health needs. You’d think that at the very least, the richest nation in the world would afford women the right to a healthy childbirth. Think again. It is a costly luxury for thousands of American women to receive sufficient pre and postnatal healthcare.
So back to health education-- if a community of women has the information they need, what if I can’t provide them transportation to get the necessary care? What if they can’t access birth control because their employer won’t provide it? Our system was created to fail Americans that can’t pay their way into a healthy life.
- What do you think the U.S. healthcare system should look like?
MK: I think we can start with the providers of healthcare. There is no reason why we should be weeding out the thousands—maybe millions--of people who want to become doctors but don’t have the financial means to do so. Why are we weeding them out and not facilitating their journey?
Let’s bring a balance to the system, where we take care of doctors while they are pursuing their dream of becoming a doctor. Then we can make their services available without the enormous cost to all Americans—in a way where healthcare is seen as a right and not a consumer good.
- What role do you see people of faith and faith communities playing in making the needed changes?
MK: Faith drives the intentions of so many stakeholders in this process, including providers and patients and even lawmakers. So why are we ignoring the fact that the three main religions, and really all faith and value systems, have a humanitarian foundation? We teach these things to children in Sunday school, but they somehow are not translating to the people who design our nations’ systems like healthcare.
There is no faith teaching that calls for greed, that calls for a social class system, that says you can only receive quality healthcare if you are in a certain income bracket. So the faith community needs to continue to remind changemakers in the system, especially those who are selectively imposing supposed faith views on homophobia or sexism, about these basic teachings. Our prophets and messengers have told us time and time again in scriptures what is required of us: don’t put people in poverty because they’re sick.
This interview has been condensed. Click here to learn more about HEART Women and Girls.
Faith and Healthcare Notes
- The CEO of GoFundMe, the last-resort site for too many Americans in desperate need of healthcare, tells Kaiser Health News, “What I learned is the health care system in the United States is really broken. Way too many people fall through the cracks . . . We shouldn’t be the solution to a complex set of systemic problems.”
- “Eight Reasons Why Insulin is So Outrageously Expensive,” from the terrific diabetes patient advocates at T1International. Among the reasons: three companies raising their prices in lockstep rather than competing, relentless patenting enabled by loopholes in the system, and piles of corporate money poured into the political process to protect that system--and the record-breaking profits it generates.
- A new poll says that a majority of U.S. healthcare professionals support a single-payer system. "For-profit insurance companies are not your friends, they are in it for the money and that is all. Illness needs to stop being a profit-making adventure," said one RN who responded to the poll.
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