Editor's Note: The Thomas J. Watson Foundation is working with this year's fellows to delay or adjust travel as needed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
From an early age, Noor Banihashem Ahmad has been interested in medicine and women's issues. As she grew into adolescence and early adulthood, she became more aware of and concerned with issues of marginalization and the sexual assaults and harm experienced by so many women.
As a 2020 Watson Fellow, Noor, who is an independent major in Gender and Sexuality Studies with a minor in chemistry and plans to attend medical school, hopes to travel to Australia, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, and Scotland to study the community-based support systems for those who have experienced sexual harm.
"A country’s response could be impacted by different histories, norms, cultures, and attitudes towards harm, and I would examine how these factors play a role in creating a community surrounding this issue," says Noor. "All of the places that I picked were intentional and are doing the work surrounding supporting people who have experienced harm."
Australia is seen by many as being a leader in policy change around sexual harm and has a wealth of reported data to study, says Noor. In the Netherlands, she hopes to get a sense of the issues and freedoms sex workers encounter, as well as the community-based efforts that exist when instances of sexual harm occur within that community. South Africa provides many possible topics to consider, including how apartheid may have impacted how sexual harm is addressed in the country. Sweden has high rates of gender equality in policy and the workplace yet women in the country experience abnormally high rates of sexual harm. In Scotland, the response to sexual violence is solely a police matter and not handled within the healthcare system. Noor plans to work with Rape Crisis Scotland, which is at the forefront of advocating to ensure that healthcare systems in the country have procedures in place to help those who experience sexual harm and has put pressure on the government to start making changes.
"My interest in exploring this topic does not come from pain," says Noor, who has experienced sexual harm in her own life. "Rather, it comes from a place of passion and inspiration. Taking the year to explore this question will allow me to explore the extraordinary work that people in their communities are doing to help those directly in their circles."
On campus, Noor is a member of Students Against Sexual Harm (SASH), a student-run collective that students can reach out to for anonymous, individualized support from other students in the collective. She also facilitates a sexual harm support group on campus.
"I remember leading my first support group, and this is when I truly realized how important community is in the context of sexual harm. After years of struggling to speak about my own experiences, when I did open up, instead of being met with disbelief, I was met with compassion, care, and gratefulness. Sexual harm is a community issue people in our direct communities, not just 'professionals,' should be empowered with the skills and compassion to support one another."