‘Abused women also have rights’ | Sunday Observer

‘Abused women also have rights’

They met accidentally at a soup kitchen run for homeless women. Yet it was that chance encounter with a woman whose name he never got to know, that set the course for 22 - year - old Alvaro Bermejo’s career : one that took him to many countries in two decades with a single overriding goal: to give the poorest, most marginalised , stigmatised and socially underprivileged women (and children) a better future.

“It was not a planned meeting. I was a volunteer at the shelter for homeless persons which my parents had been running in Peru during every summer vacation. While serving the food to those who had dropped by, I got talking to a woman who appeared to be battered and abused. Sensing my empathy, she poured out her heart to me, telling me of her life of abuse, rape and violence . Sexually raped by her own father, she had run away from home, then raped again by another man by whom she had two sons. One died of under nutrition, the other is a drug addict.

Her story was typical of hundreds of real life experiences of thousands of women in the poverty stricken country of Peru , where spurned by society, exposed to HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases , every one of them yearned to break that vicious cycle of poverty and rise from their toxic surroundings. But who could they turn to?

It was an appeal he couldn’t resist.

“That woman became my inspiration. I was determined to dedicate my life and use my education in public health to empowering women like her with their Rights and with access to tools and services that could help them face the physical, emotional and psychological harm they endure.”, Dr Bermejo says responding to a question posed to him by the Sunday Observer.

I met him at an interactive media discussion he had at the Sri Lanka Family Planning Association headquarters at Bullers Road a few days ago. In spite of the humid weather and a tightly packed programme he managed to maintain a unruffled composure as he fielded our questions expertly and honestly with a serene smile and gentle voice. Harnessing whatever tools were available to him, Dr Alvaro who holds a degree in Public Heath from the University of Leeds, went on to dedicate his life for the next twenty years as a senior executive in global federations working across HIV and AIDS, humanitarian issues and health policy.

Before joining IPPF he was Executive Director of the Survive & Thrive portfolio at the Children Investment Fund Foundation which included work on health, de-worming, education and nutrition. Prior to that he was Executive Director at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance where he contributed to the design and implementation of its strategy , oversaw its rapid growth and expansion to 36 countries , besides leading a team which achieved significant policy influence. From 2011 -2013 he also served as a Board member for the Developed NGO delegation to the Global Fund to fight AIDS,TB and Malaria.

Sri Lanka - a paradise island

It was in connection with the Global fund for AIDS, Malaria & TB that Alvaro made his first visit here six years ago. “It’s a beautiful country- a true paradise on earth and I instantly fell in love with it and your friendly people. I was also impressed with your health indices. That’s why I decided that Sri Lanka wold be the first Asian country I would visit after I assumed my new post as IPPF Director General on March 1 this year. My two days here is actually a learning experience for me to evaluate the progress and any set backs since my last visit”.

So what has he learned during this rushed visit so far?

“ The SLFPA is doing a great job from what I have seen in the areas I have visited . I visited pharmacies and spoke to the young generation of adolescent girls and from those discussions I became aware of some specific challenges that both the FPA and the Health Ministry face. For one thing, I felt the country still lacks new advanced technologies like a single blood test that can indicate if you are HIV positive or not. However, discussions are being held to see if we can come up with some solution and purchase these at a cheaper cost.”

“While congratulating the Family Health Bureau Director for ‘bringing Sri Lanka into the 2020 partnership ensuring that more young people attend OPD screening clinics and using their services, he reminds that, we need to think about young people who do not attend our clinics and use our services, or depend on other options. We need to ask why? Experience has shown that many of them now have other means of getting these services via their phones, websites, facebook, from books, newspaper articles that can sometime give misinformation, and through peers . “That worries me as these are important health issues on sexual and reproductive health. So informed education is the key . But it has to start with adolosence education on gender and masculinity.”

As a former Executive Director of the Survive $ Thrive portfolio at the Children’s Internatïonal Fund covering health, de worming , education and nutrition, he feels even in countries like Sri Lanka where great strides have been made in lowering child and maternal mortality rates, anaemia in mothers and low birth weight remain a problem. “The first thousand days in a child’s life are extremely important “, he emphasises. He is all for involving mothers in the nutrition process saying “if you give a mother money direct for nutrition at least 50 % of it will be used for just that”.


His answer is clear. “Wherever it has been legalised the numbers of abortions have come down drastically.”

Right now we are in a highly politicised society and that has produced a chilling effect. It is time for more women to give up their passive roles and fight for gender equality and funding for their rights.