Feature Stories

Bringing Health Awareness to Hungary’s Women

Melinda, a local Roma volunteer professional (left) and Marianna, JDC’s WHEP Program Manager in Hungary (middle), share information about breast cancer with a Roma woman at a Health Day in Pécs.
Melinda, a local Roma volunteer professional (left) and Marianna, JDC’s WHEP Program Manager in Hungary (middle), share information about breast cancer with a Roma woman at a Health Day in Pécs.

Klara, a 52-year-old banker and mother of two, clearly remembers the day she attended the breast cancer screening that led to her diagnosis. It was brilliantly sunny and she had a full afternoon of client meetings scheduled. There were 17 women in line ahead of her to have a mammogram. As she turned to leave, a screening assistant called after her, encouraging her to reschedule after work hours to ensure she didn’t put off the exam another year. She returned at the end of the week and three days later got a call asking her to come in for another mammogram—and a biopsy.

Klara had learned about and done self-examinations regularly, but the tumor was so deep in her breast she couldn’t possibly have discovered it if the mobile screening project—a special JDC initiative to provide underserved women in remote areas throughout Hungary with access to health services—hadn’t come to her town that year.

A prominent part of JDC’s Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP)—currently active in Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, and Montenegro—the mobile screening is integral to the Equal Chance Against Cancer campaign initiated by JDC in partnership with the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The campaign’s Equal Chance Health Days have provided breast cancer screenings for over 4,500 women in 42 locations across Hungary since 2007.

The campaign strives to change the attitudes of health professionals and the majority population towards the disease and give underserved women, including the Roma and women with disabilities, access to critically needed information and services. JDC’s education initiatives, awareness-raising activities, and health services reach disadvantaged women in some of the country’s most remote areas, and end up saving hundreds of lives each year.

Klara considers herself lucky to have had her tumor discovered. It was spreading so aggressively that undiagnosed she would have died in three months. Instead she underwent surgery, followed by chemotherapy treatment and a successful recovery.

“Early detection can mean the difference between life and death,” says Marianna Jó, JDC Program Manager of WHEP in Hungary. “Unfortunately, there is a 10-year gap in life expectancy between majority and minority populations in our country. It is estimated that Roma women are three times more likely to die from carcinogenic diseases than non-Roma.’ Marianna explains that this phenomenon is perpetuated by misconceptions surrounding the illness, and a lack of access to health services among populations living in remote areas in deep poverty and facing long-standing discrimination.

The following year, when the mobile screening unit came back to Klara’s town, she volunteered her support and experience to help newly diagnosed women. She’d fought the cancer on her own because her husband was too devastated to be able to help; now she had renewed strength. “I could explain to women how to use a prosthesis, where to find psychological support…all those things I did not know when I got ill,” said Klara. “I was so happy I could help these women, to listen to them and to their needs.’

This peer support concept inspired a new program JDC is launching this month for underserved women, particularly the Roma, in Hungary in partnership with the Open Society Institute. The new Mothers Centers for disadvantaged women in the countryside will provide information about and access to public services; develop community through common activities; and contribute to the Roma women’s active citizenship in Hungary.

Melinda, a civil society professional from the local Roma association who helped bring the mobile screening unit to Klara’s town, will volunteer as a coordinator for their Mothers Center. She sees it a unique opportunity for Roma women to meet, discuss, and deal with issues that are relevant for them as mothers and women, as individuals and as a group. For example, she and Klara are focusing on making their Center health-oriented and inviting women from their Roma community to discuss topics like women’s issues, diet, disease prevention, and diabetes.

Melinda believes openness and authenticity are critical to this empowerment program. “We solicit the needs of women in the community before we start the program. They see that the community house is for them, that we do these things for them, so that their lives get better,’ she explains. “These women do not get to go anywhere. They go to the supermarket to do the shopping, they see the public nurse or the doctor with their kids, but they have nothing else, only the household.”

That’s what makes each of the four centers such a critical resource: they will provide a forum for women to raise issues and share concerns about their health, their children, financial management, and domestic issue. “We think that women’s health, child-care, early childhood development, and school issues are their main interests. They want to be good mothers, so that they can raise good children. This is what they see in us—an opportunity to learn and be better.”

Tags for this story: Health / Medical Issues, WHEP / Susan G. Komen for the Cure ®, Women

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