A free clinic backed by the United Nations refugee agency – the first of its kind – recently drew over 300 women at a community centre in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Most of those attending the half-day clinic, which was organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and funded by the private Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Malaysia and the IS Puvan OBGYN Foundation, were refugee women.
“We were taking aback. We’d never seen his before at any of our other clinics,” said a volunteer. “It was only 6 a.m. and at least 50 refugee women were already there.”
The clinic offered services such as pap smears, breast examinations, blood glucose and blood pressure tests, HIV testing and counselling and consultations and referrals. Those visiting the clinic also received advice on pre-natal care, sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.
Women comprise almost one third of the 37,000 people registered with UNHCR as refugees and asylum seekers in the country, and most of them could never afford to visit either public or private hospitals.
“[The] cost of health care [and] fear of meeting doctors because of language barriers all play a part in preventing refugee women from getting treatment,” said Susheela Balasundaram, UNHCR senior programme assistant for health. “This is why the clinic is so important.”
Many women who went to the clinic were young mothers or pregnant women who were seeking advice on health care for themselves and for their babies during pregnancy and after delivery.
“My son was born six months ago, but he hasn’t been well,” said Sui, an ethnic Chin refugee from Myanmar. “My husband earns only 15 ringgit [$3] each day working at a market. This is not enough for the hospital bills. Our friends lent us money for my son’s treatment because we cannot afford it.”
On top of her son’s medical problems, Sui herself has been suffering from abdominal pains for several months, but could not afford to see a doctor for herself. The free clinic provided her a much-needed opportunity to consult with a gynaecologist.
“We tend to only see the women at the later stages of illness,” Dr. Balasundaram noted. “They don’t see a doctor until they can’t avoid it any more.”
Volunteer Kavitha Ramachandran, who works as a staff nurse at a local hospital, said that prior to working at the free clinic she did not realize that there were refugees in Malaysia.
“The refugee women said they are scared to see doctors; I think they are scared that the doctors might report them,” she said. “This is a safe space for them to get treatment.”