Prof. Dr. Sulianti Saroso: Dedicated warrior doctor

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(Photo: Prive. Doc)

IO – Prof. Dr. Sulianti Saroso is now known as the name of the hospital that was at the vanguard when an outbreak of ailments that attacked the respiratory tract emerged, such as bird flu, SARS, MERS and now the Coronavirus. Who is Sulianti Saroso? 

The Historia.id page tells us the owner of that name was a woman warrior, also known as “Sul.” The young doctor was born May 10, 1917, in Karangasem, Bali, as Julie Sulianti. After completing her studies at the Bandung Gymnasium, she continued in the footsteps of her father, Dr. Sulaiman, by enrolling in the High School of Medicine (Geneeskundige Hoge School) in Batavia. Graduating in 1942, Sul worked in the Internal Medicine Department of Burgelijke Ziekenhuis – now Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital (RSCM) – then served in the Pediatric Section at Bethesda Hospital in Yogyakarta. 

As a female activist, Sul was aware of the importance and relevance of politics. Her political mentor was Soebadio Sastrosatomo, a member of the KNIP Workers’ Board – later to become Chairman of the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) Faction in the Parliament as a result of the 1955 General Elections. Together with her friends, she formed the Laskar Wanita (Women Troops) 

After the revolution, Sul refocused her efforts on the world of medicine, and was appointed to the Ministry of Health. Her achievements are impressive. Her intelligence and skills earned her a World Health Organization (WHO) scholarship to study maternal and child health systems in European countries. Returning to Indonesia in 1952, Sul brought back many ideas about the health of mothers and children, especially birth control through sex education and family planning. 

“She enthusiastically asked the government to make decisions that support the use of contraception through the public health system,” wrote Terence H. Hull in People, Population, and Policy in Indonesia. 

Sul began to move. Through RRI Yogyakarta, she delivered a speech to garner government support. Hearing the broadcast, Vice President Muhammad Hatta was angry. 

“Even though his economic ideas were very advanced, Bung Hatta considered the discussion about the subject to be inappropriate and unnatural to be used in mass communication, as it was a matter of family life for the Indonesian people,” Hull wrote. 

Bung Hatta asked Sulianti to stop discussing family planning and refrain from carrying out her duties as head of the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the Ministry of Health in Yogya. 

Sul was shocked. For her, the order was a cruel contradiction. As for Hatta, this order made sense in terms of common-sense morality. 

Reactions also emerged from local women’s organizations. Moreover, news appeared in the newspaper People’s Sovereignty (Kedaulatan Rakyat) on August 16, 1952, which was the result of an interview with Sulianti. The title, “Bivolkingspolitiek Is Needed in Indonesia, Do Mothers Dare to Restrict Births?” 

The report said that two months earlier two delegates from the headquarters of the United Nations Agency for Child Affairs (UNICEF) in Bangkok, Dr. Sam Keeny and Hayward, visited Indonesia to discuss plans to improve the welfare of mothers and children, as submitted to UNICEF. The plan was accepted by UNICEF. 

According to Sulianti, Indonesia lacks midwives, so people use traditional midwives. Infant mortality rates are thus high. On the other hand, Indonesia’s population has increased. “Mothers should be brave and willing to limit births,” Sulianti said, as quoted by the People’s Sovereignty. 

There was a reaction from the Yogyakarta Women’s Organization Association (GOWY) which then held meetings – as well as religious leaders, doctors, and midwives. They rejected Sulianti’s view of birth control, which they considered as violating human rights, resulting in the killing of embryos, and even runs the risk of expanding prostitution and damaging public morals. 

I n O c t o b e r 1 9 5 2 , a l o c a l women’s organization held a seminar on family and pregnancy planning, which was attended by health care workers, secular groups, and Catholic and Islamic religious organizations. The seminar’s conclusion: “The use of contraception in any form and for any reason is forbidden”. 

Because of many reactions, Sulianti was called by the Minister of Health and warned not to mention the sensitive issue again. According to Sulianti, as quoted by the History of Family Planning Development and Population Program, the warning was given by the Minister of Health because previously the Minister had received a reprimand from President Sukarno. In a speech delivered in Palembang after the “Yogya Incident”, the President said he disapproved of birth control. 

Sukarno was not in favor of family planning. According to Hull, Sukarno tended to be cautious in the midst of high political tension and public opposition to “moral violations” including family planning, while in fact some of Sukarno’s people were at the forefront of promoting reproductive health. 

Sul began to work carefully. Several women leaders later established the Family Welfare Foundation (YKK) on November 12, 1952, which opened access to pregnancy arrangements and the health of mothers and children. They no longer used the term “birth control” but rather the regulation of pregnancy, placing more emphasis on health issues. In Jakarta, Sul told patients in her clinic that birth control services were available in the private sector. 

Sul also drove public health efforts. In 1956, she headed the Village Community Health and People’s Health Education Unit (KMD/PKR). She created the “Bekasi Project” in Lemah Abang, a pilot project or service model for community health development and training centers, which integrates rural health services and medical services. 

While serving as Director-General of Preventing and Eradicating Communicable Diseases (P4M) in 1967, Sul assured the WHO international commission on eradicating smallpox that Indonesia was free of the infectious disease, which at that time was a problem around the world. 

What Sul later spearheaded won a place in the New Order period, through the Family Planning Program. 

Sul’s dedication and consistency in the field of medicine made her famous beyond Indonesia. She was appointed by WHO as a member of the executive body and even served as chairperson of the Health Assembly, which has the right to appoint the WHO Director-general. 

“During the first 25 years of WHO, only two women were elected President of the World Health Assembly… Rajkumari Amrit Kaur from India (1950) and Julie Sulianti Saroso from Indonesia (1973),” recounted a historical mention on searo.who.int. 

Sul was far from an ordinary doctor. Her brilliance succeeded in lifting the Indonesian medical world to a global level. Sul died on April 29, 1991. Her name was enshrined as the name of a hospital: Prof. Dr. Sulianti Saroso Infectious Disease Hospital. (rp)