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A public health leader and a great friend of children with special needs

09 Nov 2023 16:09:53 | Update: 09 Nov 2023 16:14:10
A public health leader and a great friend of children with special needs
— Courtesy Photo

In a historic achievement for both herself and the nation, Saima Wazed, the daughter of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has emerged victorious in the WHO South East Asia Regional Director election.  The South East Asia Regional Organization (SEARO) is one of the six regions of WHO with its headquarters in New Delhi. It comprises 11 countries, accounting for one-quarter of the global population. Her resounding win, with eight out of ten votes from the member states, marks an outstanding moment as she becomes the first Bangladeshi to assume this prestigious position.

Saima Wazed is an internationally renowned expert on autism and the President of the Bangladesh National Advisory Committee on Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. She is also a US certified school psychologist and a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Mental Health Advisory Panel. For over fifteen years, she has been working tirelessly towards one goal – to transform the lives of children with special needs and their families and enable them to lead meaningful lives in an inclusive society. In a region where children with special needs were stigmatized and considered burdensome, she proved that they are as entitled to love, understanding and opportunities as any other child. She has persevered to show that, given the right support and compassion they have the potential to become indispensable assets to the nation and the world. She has relentlessly championed their cause and brought to light the struggles and the needs of these children and their families. Her work has indeed changed the landscape of society and made it more aware and accommodating of special needs children than ever before.

Saima Wazed was born in 1972, the first year after Bangladesh’s Liberation, to eminent Nuclear Scientist Dr M A Wazed Miah and mother Sheikh Hasina. She graduated from Barry University, USA in 1997 with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Master's degree in Clinical Psychology in 2002. In 2004, she obtained a specialist degree in School Psychology and became a licensed School Psychologist. It was during her time at Barry University that she began to research women’s empowerment in Bangladesh; her work was subsequently awarded the Outstanding Scientific Presentation Award by the Florida Academy of Science. At the time, there was hardly any awareness and almost no support for children with neurodevelopment disorders in Bangladesh and the future for these children was bleak. She was intensely aware of the struggles of these children and the immense psychological, financial and social impact on their families. She immediately began to advocate for these issues by initiating dialogue with policymakers and made mental health a priority in the health agenda of Bangladesh. She established the Shuchona Foundation, with the goal to develop approaches for early screening of neurodevelopmental disorders and early interventions, special education programs, support of families, occupational training, and social support. Such a holistic approach in the region was revolutionary.  With the support of the Honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, who is herself a foremost proponent for those with disabilities, a task force was set up involving collaboration between eight different ministries, experts, and parents. Her efforts led to the passing of the Disability Law and the National Neurodevelopment Disorders Protection Trust Act – a landmark in the entire South East Asia Region. To turn her work into a global movement, she organized the first ever South Asian International Conference on Autism in Dhaka in 2011 attended by regional leaders, policymakers, activists and experts. Her dedicated effort led to the adoption of the International Declaration on Autism. She won international acclaim when the United Nations adopted three of her proposals as resolutions. For her relentless work, she was named the WHO Champion for Autism in the South-East Asia Region. Her endeavors became a model for the South-East Asia Region and she was awarded the “South-East Asia Award for Excellence in Public Health” by the WHO in 2014. In 2015, she was presented the “Distinguished Alumni Award” by Barry University, Florida in recognition of her immense contribution to public health.  In 2016, Saima Wazed was elected as the President of UNESCO's International Jury Board for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. In July 2020, she became the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) Thematic Ambassador. Her efforts led to the adoption of: Neurodevelopmental Disability Protection Trust Act, 2013; Protection of the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 2013; National Strategic Plan for Neuro-Developmental Disorders 2016-2021; Mental Health Act, 2018; National Mental Health Policy 2022; and National Mental Health Strategic Plan, 2020-2025.Butled to the adoption of: Neurodevelopmental Disability Protection Trust Act, 2013; Protection of the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 2013; National Strategic Plan for Neuro-Developmental Disorders 2016-2021; Mental Health Act, 2018; National Mental Health Policy 2022; and National Mental Health Strategic Plan, 2020-2025. One of the most outstanding contributions of Saima Wazed and the Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was the establishment of the Institute of Pediatric Neuro-Disorder and Autism (IPNA) at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University. Since its inception, IPNA has been conducting advanced research and training programs as well as providing essential services including highly specialized behavioral therapy and counseling on autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. This has been life-changing for children with disabilities and their families, who can now access international standard care right here in Bangladesh.

At present, Saima Wazed works with special needs children all around the world and is a consultant for Autism Speaks, USA. She is currently an advisor to the Director-General, WHO, on the issues of mental health and autism. She is also serving as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador for autism in Southeast Asia. She is also an Adjunct Faculty at Barry University, USA, a visiting faculty at Dhaka University and the National Institute of Mental Health and Hospital, Dhaka. She also is a visiting specialist at BSMMU.

Saima Wazed is a visionary in her own merit. Additionally, she was brought up in the ideals of her grandfather Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bangabandhu was the embodiment of love, sacrifice and great empathy for his people and their sufferings. His only ambition was the welfare of his people and the safeguarding of their rights; no sacrifice was too great to achieve these goals. He passed on his ideals to his daughter Sheikh Hasina, who carried on his legacy in the building of a prosperous nation with equal rights for all. As a strong, compassionate, fair and selfless parent, Sheikh Hasina has inculcated values of industriousness, humanity and sacrifice in her children.

As Saima Wazed steps into her new role as the WHO South East Asia Regional Director, the world eagerly awaits the positive changes and impactful initiatives she will bring to the region's healthcare landscape. Her extensive experience, passion and dedication make her an exemplary leader in the field. We can only imagine the positive influence her tenure will have not only in the South East Asia region but on a global scale. Her journey is not just a personal triumph but a testament to the power of determination and advocacy in improving public health. We congratulate her on this historic achievement and look forward to a brighter, healthier future under her capable leadership.


The writer is Professor Dr Mohammed Atiqur Rahman at the Department of Respiratory Medicine in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University. He is also the treasurer of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University.