Despite the challenges of being the first “virtual” intern for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Islamabad, Pakistan, Eraj Sikandar’s experience, coordinated through The College of Wooster’s APEX program, only strengthened her desire to assist reformed prisoners as well as oppressed women in the future.
A rising junior business economics major with a heart for social justice, Sikandar spent the summer within the organization’s program that works on drug demand reduction, prevention, and treatment, particularly for vulnerable populations. The initial focus of the eight-week internship was to research the impacts of COVID-19 on drug dependents and their access to treatment services, and the results came in as one might expect during a global lockdown – most of the treatment centers reported closures due to safety concerns for both the clients and staff.
That simply accentuated Sikandar’s concern for this important segment of the population, and her research revealed another important issue. “What I found surprising was many of the resources previously employed toward providing drug dependents healthcare services, especially by public hospitals, are now being utilized to treat COVID patients. Although the circumstances call for such a reallocation, drug dependents, having weaker immune systems are at higher risk of contracting the virus, are left exposed, and those recovering are at a greater risk of relapsing due to the unavailability of relapse prevention services. This was shocking for me since drug dependents are more prone (to) withdrawl symptoms because of the disruption of drug supply resulting from the pandemic, but lack the accessibility to treatment services,” she said.
While Sikandar felt a bit helpless, unable to help those in need during the lockdown, she did serve on a team that organized a four-week virtual training to update prison staff from all provinces across Pakistan on standard operating procedures of HIV testing and counseling within prison settings. That provided an important service and she gained a greater perspective of life inside a prison. “This was a very interesting and developing experience for me as I not only reached out to prison staff myself, but also learned in-depth about the conditions of prisoners and their access to healthcare services, especially during the pandemic by attending the trainings,” she explained.
The internship was valuable in other ways as well, according to Sikandar. It “pushed her to become more independent and confident in completing tasks … (and) developed a problem-solving approach that has led her to trust her instincts.” Also, it confirmed an interest in pursuing a minor at Wooster in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and validated her efforts and plans toward a career in aiding with the transition for ex-offenders back into society.
“Once people are released from prison, they tend to face numerous struggles, such as getting employed, finding places to live, getting access to healthcare providers. These setbacks, along with the social discrimination they face, bar ex-convicts from successfully establishing their lives once they are released. Therefore, I feel it is essential to support them in this process to prevent them from turning toward criminal activities as a means for coping and/or surviving,” she noted. “I aim to establish an organization that links ex-convicts to resources, such as landlords, employers, group counseling sessions, treatment centers, and prioritizes following up with them to ensure growth.”
The experience and knowledge gained through the internship at the UNODC, even virtually, has helped Sikandar take an important step to a well thought-out and worthy goal.