Inspirational Woman May 2014: Ayesha Akhtar


photoBe it being a mother, wife, accountant, fitness nut, aspiring personal trainer, blogger, volunteer, or women’s health advocate:  Ayesha Akhtar makes it look easy.

Her drive to better herself and those around her have resulted in a inspiring number of personal and professional journeys.  As the co-founder of HEART, she sought to bridge the knowledge gap on health issues in faith-based communities.  As a volunteer for Every Mother Counts, Ayesha devotes her time to furthering the cause of global maternal health.  As a fitness nut and blogger, Ayesha has shared her experiences on the track and in the kitchen to a devoted  growing following.

It is our honor and pleasure to introduce to you this month’s inspirational woman: Ayesha Akhtar!

You are passionate about advocacy for women and young girls, where does this stem from?

In college (Loyola University Chicago) I received a scholarship into a 4 year women’s leadership program. I knew I was some version of a feminist (or a proponent of the advancement of women), but had no idea about the passion the program would ignite in me by the time I graduated. Thereafter, I viewed everything from the lens as an advocate for women and girls. (Check out the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership)

You co-founded HEART; how was this idea conceived?

I was completing my practicum at the Department of Health and Human Services with my friend (and co-founder) who received a small grant with the instructions “do something in your Muslim community”. We decided to host a one-day workshop for young girls and women and had sessions with topics such as, “I got my period, now what?” or, “How to take care of your body through healthy food and fitness”. The ideas were based on a gap analysis of the health literacy levels of our community. At the end of the day, many asked us, when is your next workshop? Stunned, we knew we had to respond to the need by creating HEART.

Why was it important to create HEART?

My co-founder and I repeatedly saw the knowledge gap in young girls (and boys) in faith-based communities. From a public health lens, we knew they needed access to medically accurate, culturally-sensitive information about reproductive health, and because both schools and parents refused to take on the responsibility, we decided to fill the void.

You are an avid volunteer for Every Mothers Counts; can you tell us about the organization?

Every Mother Counts (EMC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother around the world. Here is a little about theit mission “As we celebrate the fact that with each and every child’s birth, a mother is also born, we also keep in mind that like every other day of the year, 800 women will lose their lives during what should be a joyous and empowering experience—becoming a mother. That’s one woman every 2 minutes. But it doesn’t have to be that way: 90% of these deaths are preventable. And who better to help make that change than mothers themselves?”

Stay tuned as I will become increasingly involved with EMC with some very exciting updates!

Why is global maternal health such an issue?

It goes without saying that a healthy woman is tantamount to creating healthy communities. Maternal health is very complex and while it begins essentially at pregnancy, or pre-pregnancy, I believe maternal health should be linked with reproductive health, to ensure an early foundation and understanding of preventative care and wellness. Women need to learn how to care for themselves, understand health indicators, and learn their reproductive rights.

What areas are the most affected and what are the main reasons?

In public health we evaluate healthcare as a triad, or triangle: access, quality and cost. In many developing nations, women have to walk at least a 5k (3.1 miles) for maternal care; oftentimes they are walking in labor. Many women don’t survive childbirth because of the distance, the lack of quality of childbirthing tools, or they are priced out of care (or even transportation). An organization such as Every Mother Counts, is an enabler of safe childbirthing practices by empowering women in rural communities to be skilled birth attendants dramatically reduces some of these barriers. These barriers are not only in developing countries, as it is well-known that the United States (ranked 50th in maternal mortality rates) maintains millions of uninsured individuals who most certainly are priced out of quality prenatal and antenatal care.

Mothers are the key to coming generations, so why is there such poor maternal healthcare safeguards for mothers?

I wish I had an answer to this question. But I’m going to answer your question by stating why there should be better safeguards for mothers. There is a societal movement to treat men and women equally, and in doing so, women have inadvertently been treated unfairly (the gamble of equality vs equity). Women simply have different health care needs than men and there is a significant lack of education to substantiate a greater need to safeguard women’s health. Reproductive and sexual health is often left out of schools, so young girls grow up not fully knowing their bodies and not having a proper foundation for their own personal health and wellness. When a woman has a strong understanding of her body, it empowers her to live her life to her fullest potential. She may think twice about bearing children at a young early age, as she may be more inclined to earn a living. And of course, salary-earning women can contribute to healthier economies which enables healthy communities. It’s a win-win situation to safeguard women’s health.

Let us ask you about your other passion: fitness. What motivates you to stay healthy?

I am motivated to stay healthy for my self and self-esteem, to be a role model for my sons, to respect the body God has given me, and to look good for my husband.

What is your favorite method of physically challenging your body?

Great question! I love to break a sweat every day. Whenever I need a boost, I either lift heavy weights or head out for a long run. Both are mentally and physically taxing and allow me to zone out momentarily and focus on the present.

You are also an avid advocate for eating clean.

It is so important to put healthy food into our bodies if we demand to live healthy lives. Eating clean implies you eat food in its most pure, natural form. I see no reason to consume food with extra sugars and other (often un-digestible) additives. Consider the sweet potato, a complex carbohydrate. We have been programmed to eat sweet potatoes (as a traditional Thanksgiving side dish) with loads of brown sugar and marshmallows. If you simply slice and roast them with a light sprinkle of sea salt, all the natural sweetness comes out and it needs nothing else. Eating clean is simple, affordable yet challenging. It’s looking at your food as nutrition for body, as fuel to perform daily tasks.

Why do you think the United States, a country with such resources, is facing obesity issues?

We are a nation that values convenience, simplicity, entertainment, and putting in minimal effort with maximal rewards. Taking the time to eat clean, consume in-season produce, cook at home (as a family), and spend less time on the sofa flies in the face of what society currently desires. I realize this is a loaded statement, but if you think about it deeply, it’s true. In a land of resources, we have become jaded to making smarter decisions because it requires effort.

How can we as a society start dealing with childhood obesity from the ground up?

Addressing childhood obesity involves several key stakeholders: children, parents, schools, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and the food and beverage industry. Companies selling processed foods and sugary drinks need to be held accountable to what they are putting on shelves in the first place. Dozens of ingredients (ex. Yellow #5) that are banned in Europe are ‘allowed’ by the FDA as ingredients for foods kids and adults consume every day. Recently I learned that American red apples are banned from being imported into Europe due to the significant levels pesticides. Portion sizes and daily recommended intakes need to be re-evaluated by the FDA (slowly starting to happen). Schools are still struggling to offer healthy lunch (and breakfast) options but I also believe this is where parents can step in and take a leadership role. If parents and children work together to select healthier food choices on a daily basis, schools can feel the pressure to change. Often parents will make rules and children will find ways to bend them, or children eat healthy at home and unhealthy outside of the house. Working as a team ensures accountability and offers a greater meaning to eating healthier as a family.

How do you find the time? You are a mother, wife,  a health educator, and an accountant.  How do you make taxes, eating clean, teaching, being a mom and advocating about global women’s health all balance for you? 

This list doesn’t even include my current venture to become a certified personal trainer! I don’t know how to compartmentalize so I just do everything at the same time when it feels right. Life is too short and unpredictable to do or be labeled as one thing, so I make time for all of my passions. I’m not doing everything all the time, however, and that allows me to avoid burnout, maintain perspective and be creative. I have a blog that allows me to share all my passions with the world:

Lastly, in one sentence, what is your mission as a woman? 

Seriously just one sentence? I wish to inspire and challenge myself and women around me to enable women to live out their dreams and not be labeled as just one thing.