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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

PROFILE: Seeking Equal Opportunities for All

For Prof. Dr. Turkan Saylan, leprosy is one piece of a bigger picture.

The neatly dressed young woman standing near Prof. Dr. Turkan Saylan could be a research assistant. In fact, she is a bodyguard provided by the Turkish government, who accompanies 72- year-old Dr. Saylan wherever she goes.

Why her country's leading leprologist, now retired and battling cancer, should require a minder is explained by her role as founder and president of one of Turkey's most progressive NGOs, dedicated to keeping the country secular and providing equal educational opportunities for all.

Dr. Saylan first encountered leprosy as a medical student. "It was like the Middle Ages," she recalls. "Doctors didn't treat patients as human beings."

Shocked, she vowed to make a difference. First, though, she had to complete her studies, a process interrupted by marriage, the birth of two children, and two bouts of TB. The second attack kept her flat on her face for more than a year.

Once qualified, Dr. Saylan specialized in venereology and dermatology, "to show up all those who shunned the field." Early in her career, she worked in an insurance hospital, where she was exasperated by her colleagues' discriminatory attitudes toward patients with leprosy.

After she was featured in a TV documentary about leprosy, politicians accused her of talking about a disease that "didn't exist" in Turkey. But at a meeting with the health minister, she persuaded him to let her coordinate the leprosy control program, saying she could do a much better job.

As director of the Istanbul Leprosy Hospital from 1981 to 2002, Dr. Saylan was ahead of her time in appreciating that it wasn't enough just to treat the disease with drugs; it was also necessary to address patients' social and economic needs. Through a group of volunteers, she raised funds to provide scholarships for patients' children and start income-generating projects.

Dr. Saylan received the International Gandhi Award for Leprosy in 1986

'KEMALIST FEMINIST'

Dr. Saylan describes herself as a "Kemalist feminist" -- a reference to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who based the nation on secular principles. As a woman whose career had benefited from Ataturk's policies, Dr. Saylan and likeminded individuals formed the Association in Support of Contemporary Living (CYDD) in 1989 to safeguard and develop his legacy.

CYDD builds schools and student dormitories, supports the education of girls who would otherwise have no schooling beyond primary level, and provides scholarships to bright students from poor families to see them through university.

In particular, it focuses on addressing the lack of educational opportunities in the poor southeastern parts of the country, where boys continue studying but girls marry young and have large families, perpetuating the poverty in which many live.

Since most of Turkey's leprosy cases originated in these areas, Dr. Saylan was already very familiar with the region and its problems. In furthering the work of CYDD, therefore, she was able to make use of her knowledge and contacts. "Leprosy was a very good calling card," she said.

"People like to applaud me. I say, 'Don't clap. Do as I do. Solve the problems.'"

CYDD now has 95 branches around Turkey. To date, it has helped 25,000 girls go on to secondary education, and provided scholarships to 20,000 university students. Its aim is to build a dormitory in each of Turkey's 850 districts.

To her more extreme opponents, Dr. Saylan is a missionary in disguise. On the basis that her mother was Swiss, they accuse her of recruiting girls to convert to Christianity, a charge she dismisses as absurd. She receives frequent threats, but shrugs, "This is the battle going on in Turkey."

Seated at her desk in CYDD's headquarters in Istanbul, Dr. Saylan works under the watchful gaze of Kemal Ataturk, whose eyes, blown up large, stare out at her from a wall on the other side of the room. "People like to applaud me," says this proud and combative citizen of Turkey. "But I say, 'Don't clap. Do as I do. Solve the problems.'" Her hero Ataturk looks on approvingly.