Interview | “There is not a single job in the world that women cannot do,” Dr Sarita Pandey Bhattarai

NL Today

  • Read Time 4 min.

Born in Birgha, Syangja, Dr Sarita Pandey Bhattarai has been residing and practicing in South Africa for the past three decades. She is an ENT surgeon with a keen interest in Head and Neck Oncology surgery, as well as pediatric otorhinolaryngology diseases. She currently resides in East London, South Africa, with her husband and two children. In a conversation with Nepal Live Today, she discussed how she ended up in South Africa and the challenges Nepali professionals, especially women, face abroad, among other issues. Excerpts:

How did you arrive in South Africa?

When I was in fourth grade at Gyanodaya Bal Batika in Kathmandu, my father suggested that we join him in South Africa, as he had been there for a few years and saw the potential improvement of our future by having his family living together with him.  So, I, along with my mother, sister, and infant brother, went to South Africa. We came together with another Nepali lady, who was also traveling to join her husband in South Africa. The flight trip took four days from Kathmandu to our destination, with stops in Delhi, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and finally, Mthatha. Looking back, I wonder how my mother managed to get us here. She spoke no English, and I was just a child, but she recalls that I assisted in navigating  the journey by speaking and asking questions. I am sure that the other lady who traveled with us may have helped us. 

Upon arriving in South Africa, specifically in the small town of Umtata (now Mthatha), my sister and I enrolled in Excelsior School. When apartheid officially ended in 1994, I transferred to a model C  school and completed my Matric (Grade 12) there. Then I applied for medical school and was accepted at the University of Transkei. And the rest is history.

How were you involved in the Non Resident Nepali Association during the Covid time?

I was engaged in online education for the Nepali diaspora, addressing topics such as actual Covid-19 diagnosis, mental health issues, and general health concerns. Also, I played a key role in establishing and supporting a telehealth program for the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), collaborating with esteemed members of the Global Health team.

I also took the initiative to organize and conduct a suicide prevention workshop for Africa during the December 2020 to January 2021 period. On a local level, I participated in efforts to provide food parcels for Nepali residents in South Africa, particularly during the initial challenging lockdown period when many Nepali were facing hardship due to loss of livelihood.

In my capacity as the General Secretary of the NRNA Women’s Health Forum, I was involved in arranging webinars focused on general health topics. This included tasks such as coordinating relevant healthcare providers of Nepali origin from various continents to participate as speakers, contributing to webinar presentations, and overall supporting the education of the Nepali diaspora worldwide through these online platforms.

What type of challenges Nepali professionals, especially women, face abroad?

Foreign professionals, including Nepali individuals, often face discrimination based on their status as outsiders in their chosen places of residence. However, this obstacle can typically be overcome through the demonstration of professionalism and dedication. Nepali professionals are qualified and capable of integrating into workplaces smoothly. 

One significant challenge for Nepali professionals, particularly those trained in Nepal, is the requirement to undergo numerous exams, including entrance exams, board exams, and English proficiency exams such as the IELTS. Language proficiency is often a critical barrier that affects Nepali individuals who relocate to other parts of the world as adults. 

Regarding gender, women frequently encounter barriers such as being overlooked for promotions or excluded from residency/training programs simply because of gender biases. They are often perceived as the weaker gender and are expected to prioritize family over work, particularly in male-dominated fields such as surgical specialties. This gender disparity is a widespread issue not only in medicine but also in various professions worldwide.

What is your advice to Nepali diaspora, especially women, to progress in their chosen field?

The advice remains the same for men, women, and individuals of any diaspora. The secret to success is the willingness to work hard and educate yourself further in the field you are working in. As an expat living abroad, one must keep in mind that to be considered employable and valuable, foreigners need to demonstrate their capability and willingness to put in extra effort and hours.

Nepali didi and bahini [Nepali females] must understand that discrimination exists everywhere. However, one must not let it cloud our judgment or cause unnecessary upset. Every field is challenging, and every specialty requires effort. But with education, joy, and passion in your work, everything becomes easier, and your superiors/managers will recognize your potential. Maintaining good relationships with both ground staff and managerial colleagues is crucial for progressing up the corporate ladder fairly.

Ladies must also remember that there is no need to burn bridges if things go wrong in a company you work for. Finally, there is not a single job in the world that we cannot do if we put our minds to it.