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Disturbing the peace – Meet Luissa Vahedi

[Luissa Vahedi]
Luissa Vahedi has been studying the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti as part of her master's in epidemiology, offered through the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen's.

When you think of peacekeeping missions you might imagine blue helmeted troops handing out candy to children, and field hospitals helping the sick while distributing food and water.

But there are unseen challenges in introducing a large group of predominantly male soldiers into this type of environment for months or years at a time.

Luissa Vahedi has been studying the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti as part of her masters in epidemiology – a field which focuses on the determinants of public health.

“As the mission wound down in 2017, there were anecdotal reports of sexual interactions between peacekeepers and local women,” she says. “My research aims to understand how these relationships occur and what could be done to support the women that have given birth to children or have been exposed to sexual abuse and exploitation. Examining the legacy of this peace operation in Haiti is very timely and will help us understand how to prevent human rights violations within future peacekeeping operations.”

When she was first considering masters studies two years ago, Vahedi's connected with Susan Bartels, an associate professor of Emergency Medicine with a cross-appointment in Public Health Sciences at Queen’s, who had a funding opportunity to study peacekeeping. The research strongly related to Vahedi's interests, as she previously volunteered at a sexual assault centre and wanted to research more about the intersection of health and gender. Dr. Bartels eventually became Vahedi's supervisor, alongside Heather Stuart, a professor in Public Health Sciences, Psychiatry and Rehabilitation Therapy, as well as the Bell Canada Chair Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research.

The project involved analyzing data gathered from Haitians who voluntarily completed surveys through tablets provided by the research teams. The surveys provided broad prompts, asking the participants to tell the researchers a story about what it was like to live near UN bases. After this, the participants self-interpret their experiences which provided rich qualitative and quantitative data to Vahedi and the team.

“You get to go back to the story and contextualize those numbers with the actual lived experiences of these women and girls,” she says. “Health is comprised of physical, emotional, social, and political factors, and projects like this provide greater understanding as to how those factors affect daily behaviors, population patterns, and who we are as people. Through this degree I have learned practical skills in data analysis that are very transferable to both public health and in policy making.”

Using the data, Vahedi has built a regression model to try and predict where these interactions were geographically more likely to take place during the peacekeeping mission, and to understand how people's perceptions of these sexual interactions affects the legitimacy of the UN within Haiti.

Preparing for this project involved reading broadly about political science, the history of Haiti, and other related works. While this wasn’t something Vahedi expected as she started her research, she feels the opportunity has helped her to better round out her education and keep her open to new learning opportunities – and, besides, reading is one of her passions.

As she nears the end of her program, Vahedi is preparing for a year off from school to give her time and space to prepare a PhD application. She hopes to continue her studies in epidemiology or public health, while advocating for the use of epidemiological methods to help improve health outcomes for people in fragile states such as Haiti.

“Graduate studies can be stressful, so it has made all the difference for me that I have found a department that is supportive and had the opportunity to work with supervisors who want to see me grow and develop,” she says. “I knew it was a place for me because the campus is beautiful, it is housed in a really great city, and the public health sciences department at Queen’s has been so amazing. Working on a project that I feel very passionate about has been especially gratifying, and I am very privileged and grateful to have this opportunity.”

Hear more from Luissa Vahedi on a recent edition of the Grad Chat podcast on 101.9 CFRC.

Learn more about the Epidemiology program. 

This article was originally published by the School of Graduate Studies.