James H. Ware Award 2022: Patience Sumbawiera Saaka

Awardee: Patience Sumbawiera Saaka
Program: MPH in Global Health
Project Title: Stories for Impact – Ending dehumanising widowhood rites in Bolgatanga, Ghana, through Storytelling
Organization: Widows and Orphans Movement (Bolgatanga, Ghana)

More about Dr. Saaka

Across several ethnic groups in Ghana, women go through a set of rites and rituals as part of the funeral rites of their dead husbands. The practice of widowhood rites is particularly very onerous on women. Among women living in and around Bolgatanga, in the Upper East Region of Ghana, the occurrence of widowhood rites is rife. The project aimed to learn about women’s experiences of widowhood rites, including the effects on their mental and physical well-being, and re-tell their stories in animated videos to serve as tools for advocacy. The study was a mixed-methods study carried out in the Bolgatanga Municipal district in the Upper East Region of Ghana. Every widow interviewed reported at least two mental health symptoms, with the majority having symptoms suggestive of post-traumatic stress disorder. Several participants also reported impacts on their physical health, including sexually transmitted infections from sexual abuse during the performance of the rites. The broad themes deduced from the interviews and highlighted for creating the animations were: mental health effects; widow victimization; economic hardship engendered by property repossession; food insecurity of widows and their families; and sexual exploitation of these vulnerable women. Several of the different components of these rites constitute gender-based violence and must be modified or eliminated to protect the dignity of women in the communities in this region. Storytelling is the first step toward this change.

Most rewarding part of the field experience

For me, the most rewarding aspects of my experience were the conversations I had with the women in the field. Even though conversations around violence and abuse are usually difficult ones to have, the widows I interviewed made it so easy. The conversations were thoughtful, thought-provoking, and had such depth that I came away with so many nuggets of wisdom.

Advice for students doing work in the field

Very often, the people we seek to help know the solutions to their problems more than we ever would be able to appreciate. It is important to take a step back so they can step forward and reveal to us what they really need.


Abigail Fati Abdulai (The Executive Director, Widows and Orphans Movement). The entire staff of the Bolgatanga Office of the Widows and Orphans Movement.