Researching Health and Human Rights in Accra, Ghana

December 5, 2007

This article is part of Summer Stories, a special, online issue of Dukengineer Magazine, in which students wrote about their experiences in the Summer of 2007 during their time away from Duke.

by Stesha Doku, BME ‘08

Florence OkraFlorence Okra did not have an office. Instead, her office was her home--an apartment in the police barracks of Accra, Ghana. When I met her, I was surprised to discover that she had never had a place to separate her work from her personal life. After all, when you start a non-profit organization that you are passionate about, devotion of time is never a question.

Florence’s career began as a nurse in a military hospital when she realized the severe need for better education about women’s reproductive health in Ghana. Many of the women she met through her job believed a number of myths about what it meant to be pregnant. The most appalling of these was the idea that at eight months the baby dissolves into blood only to be reformed again at nine months. This belief led to a number of abortions late in the pregnancy that threatened the health of Ghanaian women. So Florence set out to make change by starting the Eves Foundation. Her commitment to women’s health was a driving force for everything she did. I hope too that my passions will be manifested in whatever career I choose.

My partner and I had started designing our project around our individual interests. He was concerned about human rights while I was more interested in health. Our overall passion for combating inequality and injustice led us to women’s health and human rights. We spent five weeks interviewing non-governmental organizations in Accra, who worked on gender inequality issues, in order to create a print booklet: a kind of handbook for the local women. While this handbook focuses on issues of human rights and health, we also hope it will serve as a basis for both education and empowerment in the community. Furthermore, we discovered a general lapse in the network to support women. Considering the difficulty we had in tracking down some of the top organizations for gender equality, we can only imagine the difficulty the local women must have in finding the resources that they need. Thus, we set out to create a directory of the organizations that focused on gender issues. We hoped to set up a referral network and provide up-to-date contact information for accessing the resources available thereby empowering women.

Along the way we met many interesting individuals. While we were expecting few to be talking about women’s rights, the people whom we met by chance seemed to be really engaged in the issue. One of my Aunt’s friends, who drove us home from a traditional Ghanaian party, told us about the class boundary problems she encountered in her work. In her experience, empowering women in rural areas was most difficult -- mostly because these women considered the difference in class too difficult a line to cross in the name of unity. In their opinion, the upper-class Ghanaians did not know of the struggles that lower class women had to face. These rural women were unwilling to join in the cause. The problems of gender inequality were multi-tiered. The complexities of class, culture, family and desire all had their role.

While my summer experience was a welcomed digression from the technical nature of my biomedical engineering degree, it was all the while applicable to what I hope to continue doing in the future. After 3 years of studying engineering, I find myself skilled at analyzing problems and looking to find solutions in novel ways. The problems that women face in Ghana have as much to do with culture as they do with technology. Many of the women who demonstrated the greatest freedom had access to information, good healthcare, and protection of their rights. I see now the applications that my engineering education and medical passions can have in the context of my international experiences.

For example, a year ago, I spent my summer in Haiti doing research and volunteering. I was asked then, by one of the workers at the local hospital, to help with some of their medical equipment. It has become more obvious to me that what I was learning over this four-year period will be valuable every time I travel to a foreign country, no matter what project I am pursuing.

While I am unsure when I will return to Ghana, I do hope in the future to continue my work internationally. The opportunities to combine global health, research, human rights, and engineering are endless. I plan to move forward, like Florence, with the desire to be a problem solver for the social and health-related concerns of disadvantaged people.