Freedom of choice, prostitution, feminism, and LGBT pain: the social worker talks about working with vulnerable groups

Maria Golub

Founder of Woman Power Media, which is aimed to amplify women's voices, inspire personal growth and foster a global sisterhood

Founder of Women Power Media, former anti-money laundering investigator at the United Nations

In a candid interview, Gulnara Zhakupova, a seasoned social worker with an impressive background as a UNDP staff counselor, former national program consultant at USAID, and former unit project director at Columbia University's Global Health Research Center, shares her inspiring journey of choosing a career path dedicated to helping vulnerable groups.

 From her early days as an accountant and auditor to a life-altering experience that led her to shift gears, Gulnara's commitment to making a positive impact shines through. 

In this fascinating conversation with Maria Golub,  the founder of Woman Power Magazine, Gulnara delves into her transformation, the challenges faced by marginalized communities such as the LGBT community, the importance of feminism, and the role of education in fostering a more tolerant society. 

Join us as we explore the world through Gulnara's compassionate lens and gain valuable insights into the power of social work.

When Health Becomes the Wake-Up Call

I am pleased to welcome you, Gulnara. Thank you for visiting us. Your regalia is very impressive. Tell us more about yourself. Why did you choose to start a career as a social worker?

Thank you for this question. It is essential for me. Actually, it is not my first career choice.

Initially, I was an accountant and auditor, and I used to work for the Big 4 (the four largest international accounting and professional services firms) for two or three years.

However, I realized that this was something I did not enjoy at all. I was very young then and did not understand that everybody has to find a way. I just guessed that everyone in the world should go through some challenges. And I started with something that didn’t affect me.

Nevertheless, I am very grateful for the life that I have experienced in a financial company. We still have to deal with the budgets.

But how did you realize that you needed to change?

One day my health began to fail. I lost my physical shape. I was too far from psychology to know the unloved job's impact on my physical and mental state. So, I got sick. I got very seriously ill. I was out of the field for a few months, getting recovered. And this was a sign for me to stop. I’m not going back. Helping people gives me so much energy.

What did you do then?

After I recovered, I went to international organizations engaged in various kinds of assistance. I worked for OIC in the Dutch embassy and then formed Survive University. I realized that this was what I wanted to do. All I do to help people gives me so much energy and motivation. Therefore, I decided to go for a Master's in social work. 

I began to study human psychology and did individual practice. I explored the peculiarities of different social groups, as social work involves interaction with groups of people, especially vulnerable ones.

What do you remember most about studying? Can you say that this was a specific turning point in your worldview?

To be a social worker, you need to look at human lives from many angles. Firstly, introductory psychology of human behavior - we need to know the culture to understand human behavior, and we need to know the legal system to know what can be used to protect or help a person. We have to know our history because it affects us, how we think, and how we act. 

We had different directions to take in the School of Social Work at Columbia University. Furthermore, we studied all of them, but each of us specialized in his own in detail.

Did you have a specific situation that helped you realize your vocation?

Yes, there were many such situations. I remember the first field practice. It was at Bellevue Hospital, one of the largest public hospitals in New York. 

Many ex-pats who had worked in Chicago were seriously injured and needed urgent surgery. The USА could not keep them in hospital for long without insurance. 

That is why they needed the services of social workers. We helped them return home or found shelters for them. We also had to find lawyers for them to take care of their cases.

“Sometimes you feel empathy, sometimes even anger.”

It is not easy to communicate with such groups morally. How did you manage to get through this?

Sometimes you feel empathy, sometimes even anger that people behave or make decisions that would hurt them. It was quite important to realize that you are a human being too. And you have a right to feel the way you feel. A lot of time was spent on understanding how important self-care is for us. 

In such professions, daily self-care is an integral part of the job. To be able to take care of others, you have to take care of yourself first. After all, one day I will retire and will be able to care less about others than I do now. All our managers always stress that we must take care of ourselves. In Columbia, they arranged special training exercises and dances for us.

Do you need a psychologist?

Yes, because we are all human beings. We have a supervisor and a psychologist who work with us. I am glad that we have the opportunity to work with these specialists. I would like to see these services develop even further.

Life is not clear for LGBT people

 Do you work in Istanbul now?

My institution is in Istanbul. However, I present myself as a clinical social worker, so I work with different groups. I speak with many people, and I promote my work a lot.

My second job in New York was at an LGBT center, and it was one of my life-changing experiences.

 For the first time, I realized how vulnerable this group is. Before I started working there, I saw that there were no LGBT people in Kazakhstan because I had never met them. I never met them. Now I have many LGBT friends.

What is important to do to form a more tolerant society?

Education is the key to changing your rank step by step. For example, now I know more about gender and sexual orientation. All we need is to educate people, which will resolve many problems in our societies.

Do members of the LGBT community have different problems from other people?

Sure. Because of rejection by society. Usually, their families deny these people, so they rarely get support from the very beginning. All of them get challenges like profession, friendship, and love.

What do LGBT people have besides standard issues?

First of all, they have to show people that they are just like other human beings with the same feelings. I believe the struggles are even more significant for this community. They usually feel a lot of shame and guilt. Due to the lack of information and traditions in their society, they also have to struggle to understand who they are and how they should plan the family. For heterosexuals, life is more or less clear. For people in the LGBT community, it's always ambiguous.

How do we meet each other? Where should I look for their love? How should they behave with their families? How do they create their own families and have children? There are many additional struggles people can face.

They cannot be completely open, and this is tragic. In one of my projects, I worked with men who slept with other men but were married to women.

“Any problem that continues can affect mental health.”

What are the peculiarities of the UN Stop for Peace campaign? Do they have different problems?

I did not know how a negative attitude could affect us before. This was a new experience for me. Any problem that continues can affect mental health. I saw people who could not sleep; they could have panic attacks, cry, and even go into a deep depression just because they broke. Life is not balanced.

It was essential for us to reach these people. Moreover, we wanted them to know that they needed it. We wanted them to know that everything can be discussed, and a work-life balance can be found.

Embracing Feminism: Paradigms should not control women's Life

Let's talk about feminism. What is feminism today?

Feminism is a necessary term, and we must understand that without it, there would be no women. This concept is often misunderstood. I see this especially clearly in the country I come from, Kazakhstan. 

It's sad when women consider this concept to be synonymous with hatred of men and believe that feminists must work three jobs and are doomed to loneliness. It’s about choice. 

But women often think they don't have this choice. They think, "Oh my God, I'm 28 and single, and I don't have children. Then she will retire and feel devastated, old, and unable to do anything in life. This is all our choice and way of thinking. 

We need to realize this and raise girls in a healthier environment. They should not be stressed by the idea that all these paradigms should control their lives. They need to understand that everything is about choices.

I remember when I was a medical student in my native Oxford. In my last year of medical school, students had to choose a specialization. The teachers advised them not to become surgeons because it was too difficult.

 Is there a difference between feminism in Europe, the United States, and the post-Soviet Union countries?

The difference is enormous. We cannot ignore the problems in Europe or the United States. Men dominate the House of Representatives and all legislative chambers. 

I recently watched an interview with a woman from Kazakhstan who heads a financial institution. She said that she was skeptical when she took part in the competition for this position.

What about the "me too" movement? Even women criticize this movement, and what do you think about it? They don't understand it, so they don't accept it.

It's horrifying how widespread sexual harassment is everywhere, and it needs to be stopped and then reported. We must discuss it and share our experiences until men realize it has consequences. We have to ensure this does not happen because it has a powerful impact on women's psychological resources. I think this movement has brought about some changes.

But why do you think everyone criticizes, even women? 

I think this is due to a lack of understanding of how it works. Women may be afraid of losing their jobs.

Unfortunately, also, Rebecca West wrote in 1913: "People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute." What do you think about this expression? Is it the same nowadays?

Unfortunately, now it's too close to what she has shared because I saw her speak with exceptionally educated women in the Corps.

As social workers, we deal with prostitution. We call it sex work, which comes from a woman's vulnerability. I don't think a woman would choose to have sex and risk her health, her work, or her life sometimes. Sex workers are part of the population. So that could be worked with in any case.

It was fascinating, and you also gave a lot of new information.

Thank you for having me, Marie. It was interesting to speak with you, and I hope we do it again someday.

Support Us