Challenges in ultra-orthodox communities

There is no simple ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in raising breast cancer awareness.

Monday, April 19, 2021 – In some communities, the naked breast is perfectly acceptable in public. In others, this is not the case. Some understand breast cancer as a disease, where cells in the breast grow out of control. Others see breast cancer a ‘Western’ sickness, which doesn’t apply to non-Western women, or applies only to women who have transgressed from traditional lifestyles and customs.

Every community is different and requires a tailored approach to discussing what can be an incredibly sensitive topic.

That’s why The DEAR Foundation places such a high value on finding and working with local partners who are deeply embedded in their local communities. Nobody is better placed to understand the unique challenges involved in reaching women in their communities, not only physically, but also convincingly and sensitively.

In Israel, our partners at Bishvilaych are working with Jewish women in ultra-orthodox communities, also known as Haredi. The Haredi community adheres to the strictest form of Judaism, and is characterised by its minimalist engagement with modern society and culture. Self-segregation fosters high levels of intra-ethnic marriage, and although genetic counselling is increasingly assisting couples to avoid transmitting genetic disorders, lack of genetic diversity means certain diseases remain more prevalent, including breast cancer.

Breast cancer is already one of the most common cancers in women worldwide. For Jewish women in Israel, it’s the most common. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in every 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women carry a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. This makes them 7 times more likely than other women to get breast cancer by the time they’re 70 years old.

Early detection is absolutely critical to lowering mortality rates from breast cancer. Women in ultra-Orthodox communities, however, are far less likely to attend regular screenings, because of a shortage of female physicians available to perform Clinical Breast Examinations (CBEs). Religious precepts often prevent Haredi women from discussing breasts publicly, even for educational purposes, and they are less likely to have access to secular media and public health messaging. Their absence from public and political life further exacerbates their exclusion.

That’s where our local partners in Israel come in. In order to address the disparity in health information and services reaching this population, Sara Siemiatycki established the Bishvilaych (which translates from Hebrew to ‘just for you’) Women’s Medical Centre. Focused on preventive medical care, education and outreach, Bishvilaych provides a space where women can come to seek medical advice and healthcare in a safe and welcoming environment.

Thanks to Siemiatycki’s insight, vision, and determination, Bishvilaych has already reached tens-of-thousands of women with healthy lifestyle programs, and is working with us to foster further understanding amongst Haredi women of the importance of early diagnosis in breast cancer. Under her guidance, the organisation has sponsored continuing medical education programs for hundreds of female physicians in the community, is working with religious leaders to increase the acceptance of screenings, and has successfully advocated for national health service initiatives tailored to the needs of ultra-Orthodox women.

By listening to women in the community and working closely with its leaders, Bishvilaych is working to educate and empower these women.

At DearMamma, we’re pleased to be supporting the team at Bishvilaych in their endeavours.