Above: Zulekha in her Dhanak clinic, where she serves her community in Pakistan with multiple contraceptive options.
The story of the indefatigable Zulekha Baloch is a case study in perseverance. Since she was a child, Zulekha nurtured a dream of working in health despite unending obstacles.
The first hurdle was getting married at 16 and quickly having three children. When she decided to commute two hours daily to attend midwifery school, her husband was initially opposed but eventually agreed. After she got her diploma and scraped together the resources to establish her own clinic, the first of its kind in her district, pretty much everyone was resistant — her husband, her extended family and her community.
“I was questioned by my husband and my family about the need for a clinic,” she says. “How much would I earn? How many clients would I have? Who did I think I was? A doctor? Why would anyone trust me over qualified doctors?”
“People in my community had a negative image regarding family planning,” says Zulekha. “They thought it was a sin, and forbidden in our religion.”
And yet she persisted, and now she is marking five years of running her own clinic and caring for the people of her community.
Zulekha, 30 years old, grew up in Matli, a town in the Sindh province of Pakistan, about 200 kilometers east of Karachi, and just north of the Indian border. Matli is considered a breadbasket of Pakistan. People lead tough lives, with most working in farming or transportation.
From childhood, Zulekha wanted to become a doctor or a lady health visitor. She was encouraged by her sister, who attended nursing school and established a career. But early marriage and motherhood prevented Zulekha from doing the same.
Eventually she was able to study midwifery even though she faced a long daily commute with three kids at home. She completed her course in 2013 and was sent to a nearby town to run a birth station.
In 2015, she was approached by DKT Pakistan who presented her the opportunity to have her own Dhanak clinic, the first clinic in the district. DKT’s Dhanak Health Care Centers are a nationwide network of 1,250 midwife-owned and operated clinics which emphasize family planning, particularly long-term methods like IUDs. With training, financial and logistical support from DKT, she opened her doors.
Community support was underwhelming at first but, after much advocacy, she was able to convince people that family planning was a positive thing.
“It took us months to counsel them and make them understand that it’s permissible in our religion and important for the women,” she says. “
In the last five years, attitudes towards family planning have changed. People used to have five or more children. Now most couples prefer one or two.
When her husband saw her success, he finally supported her. Unfortunately, he died in 2019 but thanks to her Dhanak clinic, she has been able to support her family, educate her children and build a house. Zulekha proved everyone wrong and her community is better off as a result.