In Rural Balkans, Focus on Women’s Health

October 7, 2014


Wheelchair-bound mother of two Aika Mustafic, 41, had never received a breast exam before JDC’s Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP) brought a mobile mammogram unit to her remote Roma village last month.

At about 50,000, the Roma population is the largest minority group in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but one of its most vulnerable and marginalized.

Enter WHEP, an initiative established in 1995 that focuses on the importance of early detection of breast cancer while providing psychosocial and other support services for women currently living with this disease. The program — in partnership with Susan G. Komen since 2004 — is currently active in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, and Russia, and also works with Israeli and Palestinian survivors through JDC’s COPE Forum.

In addition, WHEP provides leadership training for breast cancer survivors, enabling them to form NGOs, run peer-support groups, and advocate for better health care services, as well as outreach campaigns to break the stigma still surrounding breast cancer in these countries.

Over three days last month, WHEP traveled to Donji Vakuf, Kakanj, and Kiseljak, three rural Roma communities hit hard by the May floods that killed dozens and impacted over a million people, to run health days offering mammograms, clinical breast exams, and consultations with health officials including gynecologists, pediatricians, and general practitioners.

Also offered were Pap smear tests, glucose and blood pressure checkups, and a women’s health workshop led by doctors and breast cancer survivors. The more than 450 participants — mostly women and children — who attended also received educational materials adapted for the Roma population, as well as hygienic products, food packages, and three kilograms of washing powder.

“This special outreach is not just about breast cancer, but expanding WHEP’s mandate to cover a more inclusive approach to health education and services, especially among minority groups,” said Nela Hasic, WHEP’s regional director in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “For the Roma families this is a unique opportunity to have medical professionals travel to their communities and provide them with the relevant checkups. Otherwise, these families, especially the women, have no ability to travel to nearby cities to receive these crucial services.”

The program helps reach women in dire straits, like Ramic Shevala, a 45-year-old single mother of two children whose husband died in the Bosnian war of the early ‘90s.

“Once my kids graduated, we stopped receiving assistance from the state, which puts us in a difficult financial situation,” she said as she received her first mammogram. “This amazing program allows me to take care of myself.”

In most years, WHEP’s signature event in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the JDC-Komen Race for the Cure in Sarajevo, coinciding with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, attended by thousands, but this year, with the country’s hearts and fundraising budgets turned toward the flood victims, a symbolic walk will be held instead, on October 19. About 500 people — including prominent citizens of Sarajevo, representatives of the U.S. embassy, students, volunteers, and more — are expected to participate, celebrating life and survivorship, and honoring those who lost their battle with this disease. Coinciding with this year’s walk is the JDC-Komen Third Regional Conference, featuring more than 120 participants from former Yugoslavia.

More rural health days are also scheduled for later this month, in the Bosnian towns of Vidovice, Domaljevac, Prud-Od_ak, Maglaj, Hajdarovici, Maoca, Breske, Kalesija, Zivinice, and Kasarna — all heavily affected by the floods.

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