Picture the scene: You’re an 11 year old, walking with your parents on the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta, one of the world’s busiest roadways. You suddenly spot a man in a loin cloth dying in the gutter. The world walks by - uncaring, unmoved. How would you feel? For my Page 1 Woman™ this was more than shocking. It was life changing. She’d found her calling. ‘At that moment, I decided that when I grew up I was going to be a doctor working with poor people in global health’. And so began her development as a leader of human rights.
Meet Dr Anna Banerji, multiple award winning paediatric infectious and tropical disease specialist, teacher, researcher and lead campaigner. She put global health in relation to Indigenous people on the Canadian political map.
Coming from a poor Indian immigrant background, she was no stranger to inequality – on several levels. So witnessing the plight of Inuit people whilst working in the Arctic, consolidated her commitment to meeting the health needs of marginalised and vulnerable populations. ‘I felt that there were major areas of health inequality and I felt in a position to speak up and bring change”.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. Racism, sexism, plagiarism of her work, limited support have obstructed her pathway. But self-belief, unbelievable staying power and an unshakeable commitment to values of justice and fairness have provided the fuel to persist. And when cuts were made to refugee health care programmes, she was prepared to risk prison and treat her patients for free.
Read about this phenomenal Page 1 Woman™ in her own words.
Describe your work?
Dr Anna Banerji: I’m a paediatrician in multiple jobs bound together by human rights and social justice for Indigenous and refugee children. I am currently the Post-MD Education Lead for refugee and Indigenous health at the Facility of Medicine at the University of Toronto. We create conferences to educate medical students, residents, doctors, nurses and allied professionals, in practices and research and to advocate for refugee and Indigenous health issues.
In 2007 I approached the Vice Dean for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) at the University of Toronto with a suggestion of creating a refugee health conference. I had no experience, but for some reason he gave me a chance, and I volunteered my time for the next 6 years. In 2009 the inaugural Canadian Refugee Health Conference took place. In 2012 it merged with the Americans to become the North American Refugee Health Conference. It's now the largest conference on refugee health globally. In 2013 the Vice Dean, pleased with the conference, hired me to become the Director of Global and Indigenous Health for CPD.
In 2014 we had our first Indigenous Health Conference, ‘Challenging Health Inequities’ followed in 2016 by ‘Towards Health and Reconciliation’. Alongside Indigenous leaders, I teach best practice in working with Indigenous populations, cultural competency and the history of Indigenous people in Canada, because to successfully provide health care you need to understand the effect of the past on trust and compliance, and how they affect health. Canada has a dark history that was hidden from the mainstream until recently and it's now being taught in schools. A recent Truth and Reconciliation Report highlighted the Canadian government and the church’s role in committing cultural genocide. I’m helping to tell these stories alongside Indigenous leaders.
I run clinics for newly arrived refugee and internationally adopted children. I’m a researcher with Indigenous and refugee populations most of which remains unpaid. I've published several papers and conducted a case control study on Inuit children’s health. Recently I've had papers published on an antibody against the commonest respiratory virus that causes these children to be hospitalised. I’m also active in the ‘Canadian Paediatric Society First Nations, Inuit and Métis Committee. Currently I'm writing a paper on malnutrition, food and security for Indigenous children in Canada.
What essential steps did you take to get yourself to where you are now?
Dr Anna Banerji: I decided at the age of eleven that I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to work with global health doing paediatrics, because a lot of global health issues involve children. So I worked hard to get into medical school and became an infectious disease specialist. I completed a master’s in public and international health from Harvard. Everything I did was preparation for my role as global and Indigenous health leader.
I believe this is my calling. However, it took me many years to get here. Students often approach me saying, "I want to do what you do." But they don't realise that my career involved sacrifices and often unpaid work. Now finally I have a job that combines my skill set; but it hasn’t been a straight line, more a wondering line without many opportunities. A lot of my work has been in the Arctic where I met some incredibly strong, stoic people who survive where very little grows. And I always knew I was going to adopt an Inuit child – my son, Nathan, who’s now 12 years old.
What’s the one most significant thing that you did that got you into your current position?
Dr Anna Banerji: For six years I volunteered my time and created from scratch the Canadian Refugee Health Conference which evolved into the North American Refugee Health Conference. The Vice Dean in the Continual Professional Development at the University of Toronto liked what I was doing, and decided to hire me.
What was the greatest challenge that you faced?
Dr Anna Banerji: Since finishing my training, I've experienced people obstructing and refusing me opportunities. Some men are intimidated by women, especially women of colour, leading a cause. And often I was denied positions. People, particularly men, have taken credit for my work several times and often they’ve gotten away with it. I had an idea to develop a certain kind of clinic, and then someone said, "You can do the clinic, but it's my clinic." I walked away. And on other occasions people have plagiarised my proposals, but haven’t always succeeded. So I've had to work hard to get opportunities. I’ve had to find people to work for who aren’t intimidated and who believe in me. Finally I'm working with university colleagues who've been extremely supportive of the work that I do, even if I challenge the status quo.
What was your greatest light-bulb moment?
Dr Anna Banerji: It was when I saw that man dying on the streets of Calcutta. It changed my career trajectory because until then I wanted to be a teacher or a writer. My father wanted me to be an engineer. He thought doctors’ lifestyle was hard. But I knew what I wanted to do. At the very beginning my parents weren't sure if I was on the right path, but now they’re supportive.
What key resource has been crucial to your success?
Dr Anna Banerji: There wasn’t an external resource because earlier in my career I didn't have much support. But a lot of what drives me is my conviction that things are unequal and unfair and that every single one of us has capacity to make a difference. So I’m driven by social justice, which underpins my belief and value systems. And I’m compelled to keep pushing the work that I do.
What do you understand by leadership?
Dr Anna Banerji: The ability to give guidance and make decisions to move a vision in a certain direction. What I do is not for people to follow me, because for many years no one cared what I was doing. But now with my current position at the university, the conferences, my clinical work and research, some people consider me an expert in Indigenous and refugee health. When you have conviction about something and speak with authenticity, people are interested in what you say even when it’s unconventional and controversial, like equality and social justice. So I’m a leader, not by design, but through my work.
What difference has it made being a woman of colour?
Dr Anna Banerji: I've had to work harder to get recognition. And the older I get the more I see discrimination. I've been told by other women, including women of colour that my standing up to the status quo gives them courage to do the same.
A lot of younger people, students and residents say that my work and leadership inspires them to speak out for others. Some students have told me they considered me a mentor even before they ever met me.
What are your three top tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Dr Anna Banerji: First, never give up! There are always people who discourage you. So, if you really believe in something, you have to persevere. I've been doing research in the Arctic for 20 years, mainly unrecognised until 5 years ago. Now many of my publications end up on Canadian national TV. My expertise and leadership in refugee or Indigenous health was not recognised until I became the Director of Global and Refugee Health and the chair of large conferences. So it's taken me most of my career for my work to be recognised.
Second, believe in yourself and your convictions. If you truly believe in something don't let other people persuade you otherwise.
Third, find allies and mentors - other women in similar positions, who’ve made it and will support and encourage you. I didn’t have a mentor, but I’m mentoring young women who’ll do amazing things in the future. If I’d had a mentor my path may have been easier.
Thirty years ago in medical school, when I wanted to do global health, people would say, "What's global health?" But now everyone talks about it. Many young people care passionately about the world and want to make a difference and now it's becoming acceptable and responsible to care about vulnerable people. Young women of today have it easier than I did, and hopefully they will get many more opportunities.
How did you find Dr Banerji's story? Uplifting? Motivating? Leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.
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