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Dr Ruth Pfau honoured by German govt

By: Haneen Rafi

KARACHI: Across generations and across borders, Dr Ruth Pfau remains a symbol of selflessness and devotion to leprosy patients. At a ceremony held on Monday to celebrate her services to some of the most ostracised segments of society, the German consulate awarded Dr Pfau with the Staufer Medal in gold, its highest order of merit for service to the state.

Consul general Rainer Schmiedchen presented the medal to a personality who he did tower over, yet could not outshine. Dr Pfau, who has devoted 55 years to helping the poor and suffering people in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is known in Germany as a “bridge-builder between cultures and between Islam and Christianity,” said Mr Schmiedchen.

The legacy Dr Pfau has maintained over the span of her entire journey has been one of solidarity with the underprivileged to fight poverty and disease. She introduced an innovative medical approach that allowed a systematic and efficient delivery of health services and her untiring efforts have resulted in leprosy being almost completely eradicated from Pakistan.

And eliminating leprosy has not been the only agenda. According to Mr Schmiedchen, “Dr Pfau and her team have also worked hard to establish a medical infrastructure in order to fight tuberculosis and blindness.” She also raised her voice for human rights, especially for the rights of women.

“She always managed to raise funds in Germany for work in Pakistan and to make Germans aware that in Pakistan there exist hope, commitment, good cooperation between different religions as well as between the governments of Germany and Pakistan.”

Dr Pfau, speaking to Dawn, spoke about how things have changed in the country from the time she first landed in Karachi. “There are more girls in school today as compared to my early years in Pakistan. However, the value system in Pakistan has declined, especially with regard to elder family members. They say how can we take this old woman into our house, we only have one or two rooms and that she is coughing the whole night and will keep us awake.”

This happens in many countries around the world, said Dr Pfau, but in such countries the elderly can rely on government support, an unfortunate lacking in Pakistan.

She also had some sound advice for women in Pakistan who wish to make a mark. “Women can make a difference in shaping society. They should take risks, and continue to work, not letting people disillusion them. Also, don’t forget to enjoy life wherever it can be enjoyed.”

Consul general Rainer Schmiedchen spoke about how rarely the Staufer Medal is awarded in gold and only to very important personalities. Usually the medal is awarded in silver.

“This is an exceptional case also because it was awarded by the chief minister of one of the most important German federal states, Baden-Wurttemberg, and this should underline Dr Pfau’s exceptional achievements and commitment to public health.”

The Staufer Medal has a rich historical significance as it connects Baden-Wurttemberg to the medieval Staufer dynasty, whose kings ruled from the 11th to late 13th centuries. “The Staufers belonged to a regional royal line, but some of them became German emperors and were important for the history of the whole of Germany. The Staufer period was a time when agriculture, urbanisation, and long-distance trade prospered,” he said.