Giving A Voice To The Voiceless

Nurse and senior lecturer Dr Subadhra Devi Rai is the first Singaporean to receive the biennial International Achievement Award from the Florence Nightingale International Foundation. The award recognises her efforts at making a difference in global communities through her work on gender-based violence, sexual health and the reintegration of refugees.




ong before inter-disciplinary studies became fashionable, Dr Subadhra Devi Rai, 51, already had bachelor degrees in Nursing Science and Anthropology, and a doctorate in Public Health. The Singaporean nurse’s education has stood her in good stead as she volunteers with organisations in different countries working on women’s sexual health, gender-based violence and the reintegration of refugees.

On June 21, Dr Rai, who is also a senior lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Health Sciences, became the first Singaporean to receive the biennial International Achievement Award from the International Council of Nurses’ Florence Nightingale International Foundation (FNIF). She was recognised for her work with vulnerable populations globally, including in Thailand, Laos and Nigeria.

Due to an outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus in South Korea, Dr Rai did not attend the award luncheon in Seoul. However, in her keynote speech delivered via video, she spoke of how nursing has allowed her to volunteer and work in parts of the world that she would not otherwise have had access to. She said that the award gave her a platform to speak about nursing, which many perceive as “dirty work” despite its varied scope and advanced practice.

She added: “There is dignity in cleaning up after patients who have soiled themselves because it is only when people are at their most vulnerable would they allow a complete stranger in intimate areas. I tell my nursing students and others that when we help those who are unable to help themselves, it is a work of service and not something to be ashamed of.”

Dr Rai first worked with refugees in 1997 at a summer job at the Edmonton Centre for Survivors of Torture and Trauma in Alberta, Canada, where she was pursuing her doctorate. Listening to the stories of refugees from Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, she felt fortunate to have a country and to be a citizen of one. She says: “You realise how awful it must be to be displaced, not sure where you’d end up, how your life will progress. Everything is on hold.”

Dr Subadhra Devi Rai with students at the Nanyang Polytechnic and Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (NYPHIMSS) Centre of Excellence.


Refugee women are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence and are often denied access to various public services provided by governments to their citizens. Dr Rai saw this first-hand during her 2005 stint as a women’s health coordinator with non-governmental organisation Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment (Weave) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Because Thailand did not ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, the women at Weave were not accorded official refugee status, which gives them a modicum of protection. Therefore, they were regarded as being in the country illegally. This made them more vulnerable to exploitation, arrest and deportation.

For Dr Rai, negotiating such complex settings is always a challenge, especially with cultural and language barriers. Things may get lost in translation and translators may have their own agendas. She gained these insights when she was in Laos and Nigeria working as a consultant on the Stop the Transmission of Polio project, which was funded by the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Canadian Public Health Association.

She says: “As an outsider, not only do I have to deal with cultural differences, I also have to deal with different levels of power structures, including within the community. For example, in the refugee community, people who can speak English can communicate with the international NGOs and get access to resources and opportunities that a refugee who doesn’t speak English may not be able to. Knowing this before I went to Thailand, Laos and Nigeria was very helpful for me.”

Her experiences have shown how health and well-being is linked to many other external factors. These include education, which leads to informed decision-making; income generation, which empowers women and allows them to better provide for their children; and the availability of housing for security and privacy.

Dr Rai sees the award as an affirmation of her work by her peers and as a “message of solidarity that transcends borders and nationalities”.

During the awards luncheon, the FNIF launched a new endowment fund to support the primary and secondary schooling of girls in developing countries, whose parents were nurses but have died.

This resonates deeply with Dr Rai as her parents took pains to ensure she would pursue her education despite intense social pressure to marry her off early. She says: “This award is a tribute to my parents and to all parents of daughters who… allowed their girls to dream and gave them the courage to pursue these dreams.”




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