Patience Sumbawiera Saaka

Rose Service Learning Fellow

Patience graduated with an MPH in Global Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with a concentration in Humanitarian Studies. She is a physician by training and prior to Harvard was pursuing her residency training in radiology in Ghana, where she comes from. She is passionate about ending gender-based violence and has done previous work with adolescent survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse, providing them with access to reproductive healthcare and mental health services. She also has an interest in promoting equity in access to healthcare through innovative solutions to healthcare delivery in health systems of low and middle-income countries and is currently leading a venture that addresses the problem of access to blood and blood products in these countries. For her practicum, Patience worked on a project that advocated against widowhood rites, a form of gender-based violence, by telling the real-life stories of survivors from Bolgatanga, Ghana, using animations.

Dr. Saaka is a recipient of the 2022 James H. Ware Award for Public Health Practice.

Detailed Project Description: 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.