I didn’t want to get married. They would find a husband, throw a party and send me away. I ran away many times. I refused to go back, but my father kept beating me. I was about 10 or 11 years old. I kept running away until I finally stayed with the fourth one because I got pregnant. I told my father, “You beat me and kept sending me back and look what has become of me.” If my mother were alive, she wouldn’t have let this happen. I won’t go home without being cured because no one will accept me. My other choice is to kill myself.
— Wubete, 17 years old, in A Walk to Beautiful
I seriously considered becoming a physician so I could travel to Africa and volunteer. In the end it didn’t work out (chemistry is not my friend), but I’m still fascinated by public health – and, frankly, find it abhorrent that the US doesn’t provide medical care to everyone who lives here. But I digress.
At Go Green Travel Green, we’re advocates for social responsibility and volunteering at home and abroad. In honor of Bloggers Unite for Human Rights, I want to bring to light an issue that I just learned about on Tuesday: the obstetric fistula epidemic in Ethiopia. I watched the PBS documentary A Walk to Beautiful about a hospital in Addis Ababa dedicated to treating women with this condition.
What Is Fistula?
The Fistula Foundation defines an obstetric fistula as a “hole between a woman’s birth passage and one or more of her internal organs” – namely, her bladder and/or rectum. And according to the World Health Organization, “2 million women have untreated fistula” and “approximately 100,000 women develop fistula each year.” These days, fistula of this sort is seen primarily in developing countries when women are in labor for many days without the care of a doctor or midwife.
Ethiopian girls like Wubete are often married off before they hit their teens. Their young age, coupled with the fact that malnutrition has stunted their growth, means that their pelvises are under-developed for childbirth. That causes labor to take longer and often leads to fistula. And, ultimately, the “root causes of fistula are grinding poverty and the low status of women and girls,” says the Fistula Foundation.
On top of the physical pain associated with a long labor and a gaping hole between internal organs, women affected by fistula suffer psychologically. They’re outcast in their communities because of incontinence and their husbands reject them. Fortunately for these girls and women, Drs. Catherine and Reginald Hamlin have founded hospitals in Ethiopia dedicated to treating fistula patients. Australia-born Catherine lives in Ethiopia, where she’s been for 30 years, treating women affected by fistulas. In the documentary, she says her husband would still be with her in Addis Ababa if he were living.
Wubete, photo credit: PBS
It doesn’t have to be this way. If the girls and women in Ethiopia had basic human rights, they wouldn’t be married as preteens and pregnant at 13. But there’s hope for fistula prevention. One of the women in the documentary said she wouldn’t let her daughter marry young – she wanted her to be able to make her own choice. A number of the interviewees spoke bitterly of the fact that they were married as children. It sounds like the tide is slowly turning in Ethiopia. I can only hope that in 10 or 20 years, the idea of marrying off an 8 year old will seem as outrageous there as it does here. But change takes time.
Back to Wubete. In the end, a Sister from the clinic gets her a job at an orphanage. The documentary concludes with Wubete saying, “I grew up too fast and then was made small and helpless. And now I have become an adult again.”
What you can do to help end fistula suffering
Donate to an organization fighting for human rights or working to improve the quality of health care in developing countries:
- Fistula Foundation
- Doctors of the World
- Doctors Without Borders
- Amnesty International
- With the Fistula Foundation to fundraise and spread the word about the fistula epidemic.
- In Ethiopia with a variety of organizations.
- If you’re a medical professional or have a relevant specialty, volunteer with an organization like Doctors of the World or Doctors Without Borders.
Spread the Word
Blog about fistula or send this post to your friends. Every bit counts.