Ebunola Anozie is championing women's health in Nigeria by creating higher consumer demand for prevention and treatment of health problems that commonly affect Nigerian women.
The New Idea
Concerned by increasing health problems that disproportionately affect Nigerian women, Ebunola is educating women on the promotion and protection of female health, specifically in areas related to cancer. Tackling an issue that has not been addressed in Nigeria, Ebunola's efforts are the first to provide cancer information to women.
Ebunola's emphasis is on three main areas: creating awareness, disseminating information, and cancer screening. She has built key relationships to support her work in each of these three areas. For example, she built a partnership with LUTH, a leading hospital in Nigeria, in order to gain the expert medical perspective necessary to carry out her mission.
Importantly, Ebunola incorporates men into her work. To disseminate information about cancer and to empower women to protect themselves, she asks men to convey her message. Recently, she has expanded her work to address men as potential victims of cancer. Ebunola's model is replicable in many areas across Africa where cancer information is scarce and difficult to access.
In Nigeria, women have inadequate information about health issues in general and their own health in particular. Many do not know about various cancer detection or prevention measures they can take, like breast examinations, pap smears, and mammograms. Government and citizen organizations have done little to bring cancer awareness and information to Nigerian women. In addition to a lack of knowledge, there is also a lack of capacity to protect women's health. For example, throughout Nigeria there are only three public hospitals that offer mammograms.
This problem is intensified by cultural taboos. In parts of Nigeria, when a family member dies from a cancer in certain areas of the body–the breast, cervix, or uterus–the matter is never openly discussed. This makes it difficult even for women who have information to visit hospitals when they notice a lump or feel pain in reproductive parts of their body. The Christian and Islamic zeal in the country also makes it difficult for women to feel comfortable examining their own bodies because touching private parts is considered a sin. Hence, many women grow up without knowing their own bodies, thus making it impossible for them to realize when developments like lumps may be occurring.
Because of the inadequacy of systems protecting and promoting women's health in Nigeria and because of the cultural taboos regarding the female body, the number of women dying from cancer-related illnesses in Nigeria is high. As HIV/AIDS infections continue to rise and the disease gains public exposure, other illnesses like cancer fail to receive necessary attention and resources.
Ebunola's initiative started in 1997 with the aim of creating cancer awareness among women. Since many cancers have no cure and early detection is critical, she began by concentrating on providing information about early detection to adolescents and young women. She started giving seminars in schools, churches, and marketplaces and through programs organized by other organizations.
Recognizing that good nutritional information is also important for preventing cancer, she added diet information to her lectures. She started providing nutritional information on Nigerian foods in order to promote general good health and the reduction of cancer risk. She wrote a simple book on nutrition to supplement this effort.
Ebunola soon realized that for women to have access to information and to have the time to use her organization's facilities, she had to work through men. As most women are under the authority of their husbands, it became critical to gain the trust and understanding of spouses.
Ebunola's organization–Care Organization Public Enlightenment (COPE)–is educating Nigerian women and men about cancer through a multifaceted approach and slate of activities: organizing workshops for corporations, churches, schools, citizen organizations, market women, and the general public on early detection, prevention and treatment of cancer; providing general good health and nutritional information; providing useful audio visual and print materials; running network programs on television and radio to disseminate the information; offering free breast examinations; offering free mammograms every month for at least four poor women in the Lagos University Teaching Hospital; offering free surgery to at least one patient a year; and referring women needing medical attention.
In addition to these services, Ebunola also has a clinic where women can go for checkups. She also periodically visits breast cancer patients in hospitals to provide them with the moral support they need, especially those who have been abandoned by their families.
To do her work effectively, she had to collaborate with experts in the field. She developed partnerships with hospitals and various other citizen sector organizations working in healthcare across Nigeria, including Ashoka Fellow Nike Essiet's organization Adolescent Health. Through these partnerships she has been able to reach a wider audience and provide current information on the issue. She also started a column entitled "Much Ado about Boobs" in the National Concord, a Nigerian daily newspaper.
To sustain her initiative, Ebunola gives lectures for a fee to for-profit organizations and also raises funds from such organizations and international agencies.
At the age of 7, Ebunola lost her mother to breast cancer, and in 1995, she lost her father to cancer of the stomach. While in the United States as a student, she had her own breast cancer scare. After these three experiences, Ebunola became determined to spread an awareness of cancer detection and prevention to Nigerians.
Ebunola has written two books on the issue, Breast Cancer and the Nigerian Woman and Eat Smart. She is also the recipient of various awards, including the Rotary Club Merit Award for Support and Commitment 1999/2000. In 1998 she participated in the Second World Conference for Cancer Organizations held in the United States and at the International Workshop/Seminar on Emergency Medical Services organized by the Lagos State Government Ministry of Health.