10 Things to Know About Volunteering Abroad Programs and Why You Should Do It

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Volunteering abroad programs – In Volunteering Abroad: 10 Things to Know Before You Go, we discussed everything you should think about before you sign up. With proper planning, it can be the experience of a lifetime. Volunteer travel is an amazing way to see a place, get to know local culture, and leave a positive footprint. We volunteered while traveling through Argentina. Discover the best volunteer abroad programs and projects abroad so you can be an impactful volunteer make a lasting impact and positive impact equals meaningful travel.

We learned a ton about WWOOFing — World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms — and had an amazing experience at Chacra Millalen. It’s been a while since we’ve written about volunteer travel volunteering abroad programs and since summer is here (or so it feels in Minnesota today) with summer vacation planning underway, I thought I’d revisit the subject focusing specifically on volunteer travel abroad versus volunteer travel locally. 

Best Volunteer Local Program vs. Abroad Volunteer Project

Whether its sandbagging for a flood emergency in Fargo or picking strawberries on an organic farm in California there are plenty of opportunities to take 1 or 2 days and see a place (relatively) near your home and volunteer the same time. You don’t have to travel far to find a place to volunteer. The trick is finding a place you want to visit for a vacation that also has a volunteer opportunity.

Generally, there are two ways to search for a volunteer travel program: by place or by opportunity. For US based volunteer travel I find it more exciting to search for an opportunity and then find out what else there is to do in that city or town. Some of the top sites for finding U.S. based volunteer travel programs include Idealist, VolunteerMatch, WWOOF and Organic Volunteers. We offer some resources for volunteering abroad to help find a good program to ensure it is seamless, hassle-free and rewarding.

Top volunteer abroad experience and volunteer abroad projects, the host community will help you find the perfect opportunity to volunteer work abroad and live abroad. The people i met love volunteers committed to providing provide support to those looking to volunteer their work experience. Volunteers of all ages, volunteer to study abroad or for programs abroad and find a program or choose a program that matches your skills and interests. Intern abroad or for your gap year volunteer, requirements to volunteer and places to volunteer abroad can provide different volunteer internship programs.

Do your research about volunteering abroad

Not all volunteer abroad opportunities are created equal. Some cost money, others are free. Some require commitments of 3 or more months; others only ask that you stay a week. There are so many important things to consider before planning a trip to volunteer overseas. Travel abroad for free via a volunteer trip to many volunteer abroad destinations. Find your perfect volunteer abroad trips you should compare volunteer travel organization and their volunteering solutions to make a positive difference and volunteers use of their time abroad depends on careful research. 

Volunteering abroad can be an incredibly rewarding experience. You get to spend a few weeks or months saving the rain forest or building houses for people who can’t afford them. Every program is not a good fit for everyone. But there are so many different places and types of work to choose from, you’ll definitely be able to find one that works for you. We’ll cover everything you need to consider when deciding on a program for volunteering abroad.


This is one of the most important things to consider when you’re picking a destination.

  • Is the program in a place you want to visit?
  • Would you be living close to a major city?
  • Would you want to?

If you’re looking to go barhopping on the weekends, and you commit to 6 months in rural Romania, you probably won’t be happy. At the same time, if you are looking to work in a farming community, you won’t want to be in a major metro area.


Learn about the safety of the region you’ll visit, and, if possible, talk to other people who have lived or traveled there. Safety can be crime-related or illness-related. Some people would prefer to avoid politically volatile regions, but are okay with risking malaria. Decide what you value before you book a trip.

Related article: Safety Tips For Traveling Overseas, safety is a priority!


Some volunteer programs charge thousands of dollars; others are completely free and provide you with housing and food. Take your budget into account before you commit to a program. Consider Wwoofing which is working on organic farms in exchange for lodging and food.


If you’re uncomfortable when the thermostat rises above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, you should probably steer clear of Calcutta in May. Look at average temperatures for the dates you’ll travel, and make sure you pack weather-appropriate clothes. Most programs offer packing advice on their websites.

Length of Stay 

Some programs are come-and-go and allow you to show up and stay for a while. Others have strict requirements for booking in advance and staying a minimum amount of time. Some Wwoofing experiences allow for much more flexibility than others. Your dream program may require a 6-month commitment. If you’re only able to get away for 3 months or maybe for your entire gap year, contact them and see if that’s a possibility. If not, ask them for recommendations of similar programs and keep on looking.

Type of Work

You could be volunteering on an organic farm in Chacra Millalen, building houses through Habitat for Humanity, doing environmental research, teaching English, or helping out in a medical clinic. There’s definitely something for everyone, so choose an activity that you’ll enjoy.

What’s Provided

Some programs give you food and lodging at no additional cost. Others provide lodging, but you’re expected to pay extra for it. Still others point you in the right direction by giving you recommendations, but you have to book and pay for it. Figure out what your program provides and what you can afford.


If getting out and exploring the region is important to you, figure out how much free time you’ll have. Some programs give you days off, while others expect you to be available the entire time you’re there. Do your research, and decide what will work best for you. As an example, while we were in Argentina volunteering at Chacra Millalen, we didn’t realize they do not have their volunteers work on the weekends. Had we realized that, we might not have planned on Saturday – Sunday as part of our stay. It was wonderful being there, but we were there to work.


Dig around online, scour forums, and ask for references if you have doubts. If the company or organization you’re considering seems sketchy, it might be. Or they might just have a small budget and no website. Do your research and try to speak to a real person about any concerns. You can look up U.S.-based organizations (or orgs with a U.S. affiliate) on Charity Navigator (which will help you find the right fit), which evaluates non-profits and gives them 1-4 stars, and GuideStar, which provides information on thousands of non-profits.

Perks of volunteering abroad

When we volunteered abroad at Chacra Millalen, an organic farm in Argentina, we learned new skills, met interesting people, ate lots of new foods, and experienced a different way of life.

  • Help others.
  • Whether you’re cleaning up a polluted river or volunteering in a medical clinic, the work you’re doing is making a difference.
  • The people you’re helping will be incredibly grateful.
  • It will make you feel good too.
  • No childcare

Get up close and personal with a culture

There’s no better way to experience a culture than by living in it. You’ll see parts of the culture and country you’d easily miss living in a hostel, especially if you’re living with a host family. Plus, you’ll get to try new foods.

Learn a language

The best way to practice a language is to be immersed in it. When the people you’re working with are counting on you to communicate, and you’re listening to another language being spoken for hours every day, you’ll become more proficient than you would believe. And you won’t even have to pay for language classes.

Have fun

When you’re working 12 hour days with someone, you’re going to bond, even if you might never have otherwise been friends. And making friends will take your mind off the hard work, sore muscles, or hot weather. In addition to getting to know other volunteers, you’ll also get to build relationships locals.

Learn a trade

You may not want to be an organic farmer now, but who knows what your dream will be in 10 or 15 years? You may decide to start your own garden or even a farm. Even if you don’t, you’ll learn leadership, teamwork, and communication skills that will impress any prospective employer. Most of these reasons for volunteering abroad also apply to local volunteering. So, while planning your summer vacation see if you can find a volunteer opportunity as part of your travels to help wildlife in Belize. Sometimes there is a program fee.

Great resources for volunteering abroad, Volunteer Traveling and WWOOF ‘ing:

Getting Started & Volunteering Abroad Programs

Whether you WWOOF or choose one of these below, there are many options, including:

  • Crossculturalsolutions.org: Offers volunteer programs in 12 countries, including Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Morocco, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Tanzania and Thailand.
  • idealist.org: An extensive volunteer database with environmental listings, connections to local nonprofits, financial aid information, internships and a kids and teens page.
  • Current opportunities include teaching environmental awareness to Nepalese villagers and developing a fruit-drying program for Ghanan villagers, among many others.
  • volunteerabroad.com: Listings include opportunities to protect Australia’s environment and conservation projects in Costa Rica.
  • volunteerinternational.org: Conservation programs in Thailand, creating a Holocaust Memorial Park in Poland and making eco-friendly soap with disabled persons in Japan are just three of the unique opportunities you’ll find on this site.
  • The Nature Conservancy accepts volunteers working to conserve the Boreal Forest and the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada (see nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/canada).
  • Great Adventures provides links to volunteer and work abroad programs in dozens of countries.
  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms– Volunteer on organic farms across the world – no previous experience required.
  • i-to-i.com: Work to conserve Madagascar’s lemurs, care for endangered wallabies in Australia or help maintain biodiversity with indigenous peoples in Costa Rica.
  • Tim Ferriss’s take on volunteering abroad lists 5 international volunteering organizations under “Volunteering Mini-Retirements” experiences:
  • Burners Without Borders- Following the 2005 Burning Man event, several participants headed south into the Hurricane Katrina disaster area to help people rebuild their devastated communities. After several months of working along the Gulf Coast, BWB has set up a project in Pisco, Peru to assist with earthquake relief work.
  • Project HOPE– Nearly 50 years ago, Project HOPE was founded on the willingness of doctors, nurses and other medical volunteers to travel the globe on a floating hospital ship, the SS HOPE, to provide medical care, health education and humanitarian assistance to people in need. While we now operate land-based programs in more than 35 countries, Project HOPE has again returned to sending medical volunteers on board ships around the world to provide medical assistance, long reaching health education programs, vaccinations and humanitarian assistance.
  • International Relief Teams – International Relief Teams mobilizes volunteers and distributes medical supplies to support the organization’s four missions:
    • Domestic and international disaster relief,
    • Medical education and training,
    • Surgical and clinical outreach,
    • Public health. Since 1988, IRT has provided more than $5.6 million in volunteer services, and more than $112 million in medicines and supplies to families in desperate need in 42 countries worldwide.
  • Relief International – Relief International is a humanitarian non-profit agency that provides emergency relief, rehabilitation, development assistance, and program services to vulnerable communities worldwide. RI is solely dedicated to reducing human suffering and is non-political and non-sectarian in its mission.
  • Hands On Disaster Response – Hands on Disaster Response covers food and housing and does not require a fee.
  • Habitat for Humanity – Build houses for people who can’t afford them with this well-known U.S.-based organization.
  • Doctors Without Borders -You don’t have to be an MD to provide medical care to people in developing countries. They’re currently seeking doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, technicians, logisticians, and others.
  • Engineers Without Borders USA – Projects “range from the construction of sustainable systems that developing communities can own and operate without external assistance, to empowering such communities by enhancing local, technical, managerial, and entrepreneurial skills.”
  • Conservation Volunteers in Australia. – Links to various conservation programs and organizations in Australia.
  • Volunteer Match – A great resource for providing you with volunteer opportunities (including many in the US) that match your interests.

Volunteer Traveling and WWOOFing:

Volunteering can be a life-changing experience for you and those you help. Using these resources for volunteering abroad, you will have your choice of opportunities and find the best one for your interests.

Volunteer in Africa: What to Know Before You Go

If you’ve always dreamed of volunteering in Africa, now is a great time to do it. People in Africa face an array of challenges. Extreme poverty, lack of clean drinking water, HIV/AIDS, lack of access to healthcare — and there are plenty opportunities to help. In Africa and wherever you are going — should also take personal responsibility while abroad – from taking care of the environment while visiting to offsetting carbon emissions, there are many ways to ensure the lightest possible footprints are left. Are you planning a trip to Africa? The chance to volunteer in Africa is sure to be a memorable and life-changing experience. Do your research in advance for the best time possible.

Here’s how to volunteer in Africa.

Volunteering in Africa is a great opportunity to give back, learn new skills, and gain valuable life experiences. Be sure you do your homework before you go. Your volunteer experience will be much more meaningful if you’re adequately prepared. As you’re planning your trip to volunteer in Africa, these tips will tell you what you need to know before you go even if you are WWOOFing

volunteer in Africa

How to volunteer in Africa

I’ve met hundreds of volunteers in Africa over the last few years, and I’ve learned that people often come with misconceptions about what their experience will be like. Understanding what to expect can help you have a richer volunteer experience. If you’re thinking about volunteering in Africa, here are a few things to consider:

  • Not all organizations will have volunteer opportunities.
  • Some organizations’ missions are incompatible with short-term volunteers.
  • For example, over the years many children’s homes and orphanages have learned that having people come and go frequently can be harmful for the children in their care.
  • They’ve learned that consistency is important, and it’s something short-term volunteers can’t offer.

Managing volunteers requires time and effort

Organizations that have a lot of volunteers often need to hire someone to manage the volunteers’ schedules — and in some cases their accommodations and transportation. I’ve heard from a number of volunteers who wanted to volunteer in Africa for free and are frustrated when they have to pay for a volunteer experience. But keep in mind that hosting volunteers, and doing it well, can take a lot of time and effort. For example, if you volunteer on a building project, someone needs to make sure you have the supplies you need.

If you volunteer at a school, someone must coordinate with the teachers and the person in charge of the school. This is one reason some organizations charge for a volunteer experience and have a limited number of volunteer spots available.

Sometimes locals can do the job better

Whether it’s a building project or teaching in a village, sometimes locals can do the job more effectively than international volunteers. If you’ve traveled in Africa, you know that foreigners often attract attention, which can be a distraction on a volunteer site. And with building projects, volunteers often don’t have the skills needed to build with local materials and tools. Plus, it would be a shame if volunteers were taking away paid work for local residents.

volunteering abroad programs volunteer in Africa
volunteering abroad programs volunteer in Africa

Tips for an amazing life-changing volunteer experience

All of that said, there are many organizations rely heavily on volunteers and feel that their service is invaluable. If you’re short on time, plan ahead. I’ve met a handful of people who arrived in Africa hoping to volunteer, but with out having any contacts or plans for what they would be doing. If you have plenty of time (and patience!) this can work. But it’s best to plan ahead, especially if you’re on a shorter trip. Contact a few organizations in areas you’ll be visiting and find out how you might be able to get involved.

It’s okay to pay, just not too much

There are a lot of great organizations that ask volunteers to contribute to overhead costs, or the cost of the specific project they’ll be working on. In general, I think this is fine. But ask good questions — make sure the money is staying in the local community and supporting local programs. There are some organizations that will charge inflated amounts and take advantage of volunteers. Do your homework and plan ahead ;to make sure you find an excellent volunteer experience with a reputable organization.

Be willing to do anything

It’s great if you have specific skills you think will be helpful, but it may be difficult to find a short-term volunteer opportunity where you’ll be able to use your talents. Be open to a variety tasks, however menial they may seem, that allow you to take some of the load off of the people working hard in their local communities. Use the time to build relationships with other volunteers and local non-profit workers; you’ll be able to gain insight into their culture, as well as the significant challenges they may be facing.

Learn about WWOOFing in Africa

If you’ve always wanted to volunteer in Africa, there’s no time like the present. Volunteering in Africa and volunteering abroad can be an amazing, life-changing experience. Just make sure you have realistic expectations, and use the tips above to set yourself up for success.

Eco-tourism in Africa

Many people may plan to volunteer as well as travel in a new country. It’s great if you have the time to do both. When we were in Argentina, we took several days to volunteer on an organic farm. It was one of the highlights of our trip. When you go to Africa, or anywhere and are planning travel, more and more tourists and tourism providers are taking responsibility for the environmental impact caused by their activities. The tide is turning toward eco-friendly, sustainable travel.

Holiday-makers expect ethical dealings, and tourism providers understand the importance of maintaining the environments and communities they operate within. An example of a company that takes eco-tourism its commitment to ethical tourism practice, a UK-based tourism provider. Here’s a case study of the different ways this company is working to maintain sustainable tourism:

Giving back to the communities who accommodate tourists through the Loldia School Fund, Safari Consultants sponsors students for the entire five years of high school in Kenya. There is also a commitment to provide two bursaries each year for students at the Koiyaki Guiding School. Providing local Maasai youth in Kenya the opportunity to learn the tourism industry and skills in eco-friendly land management.

Wildlife Conservation

Safari Consultants demonstrates its commitment to taking care of wildlife through regular contributions to the South Luangwa Conservation Society in Zambia. Smaller conservation projects and one-off involvement is also key. Maintaining a level of flexibility in the budget allows a company to make pledges to a variety of different projects as they come up.

Volunteer in Uganda ~ My Life-Changing Trip with Shanti Uganda

For a volunteering experience like no other, consider the chance to volunteer in Uganda. No travel experience has been more powerful and transforming for me than my trip to Uganda. Just for reference, I have traveled to more than 70 countries. I went with Shanti Uganda, a non-governmental organization dedicated to women’s health. Instead of being on the outside looking in, Shanti Uganda afforded me the unique and precious opportunity to immerse myself in the daily lives of a small Ugandan community.

Volunteer in Uganda

Arriving at Shanti Uganda, I was embraced with open arms by the local Ugandan women and their children. Their joy for life was contagious and their beaming and outpouring welcome was deeply moving. Over the ensuing days, other trip participants and I worked with them, sang with them, drummed with them, and danced around the fire with them late into the evening. They told us their stories and shared their sorrows and their dreams.

We learned how to prepare their food, dined in their homes, and played with their children. After just a week, I felt such a deep bond and connection with this group of rural Ugandan women and their families. I experienced a profound reaffirmation that we are all one. On my trip, I visited a birthing center Shanti Uganda built to assist local mothers (many of them HIV-positive) who have virtually no other support for normal deliveries. Tragically minimal support for births with complications. Their work in that area is essential; in Uganda, one in twenty-five women in dies in childbirth.

volunteer in Uganda
The midwives of Shanti Uganda

It was evident that Shanti Uganda has grown far beyond its original vision of bringing conscious birth to communities experiencing trauma in Uganda. It’s become a center for women and children’s health education, vaccinations, and preventive care. And it’s become a community activity and education center for teens, and a work and skills training site for rural women who, through Shanti Uganda’s initiative in developing cottage industries, are earning an income for the first time in their lives! And this amazing work takes place in a beautiful organic garden setting with solar-powered energy and a cistern-based water collection system, making Shanti Uganda off-the-grid and self-sufficient.

My trip with Shanti Uganda was ten days, and it included a trip to a national park and the impressive Murchison Falls. We also experienced a safari with elephant, hippo, giraffe, lion, baboon, crocodile and warthog sightings; a white water rafting experience on the Nile; and time exploring the local markets and amazing restaurants of the capital, Kampala. But the truly unique part of our travel was living and working with and learning from the women of the Shanti Uganda community center. Through Shanti Uganda, I discovered a way to support meaningful work, both actively with my time and more passively with the money and supplies I could bring to the center.

I felt like my contributions could make a real and palpable difference in the lives of people I grew to know and care for. It is rare to find a way to truly immerse yourself in another culture and live it, not just peer at it through a camera lens or on a tourist bus. Shanti Uganda afforded me that experience and I am eternally grateful.

Volunteering in Uganda

There are many ways to volunteer in Africa and to volunteer abroad. Learn all you can in advance so you can make the right trip for your interests and your abilities to serve. Learn about volunteering on an organic farm. If going abroad isn’t in your sights right now, there are plenty of local volunteer opportunities as well. Shanti Uganda is an NGO committed to improving lives. 

They strive to improve infant and maternal health, provide safe women-centered care, and support the well-being of birthing mothers and women living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda. The chance to volunteer in Uganda was life-changing. For a unique opportunity for travel to transform lives, join Shanti Uganda on one of their upcoming trips. 

photo credit: Shanti Uganda

Volunteering in SE Asia: Getting Your Foot on the NGO Ladder

Volunteering in SE Asia can be a wonderful, life-changing experience. Getting your foot on the first rung of the ladder in the conservation and humanitarian sectors is a chicken and egg kind of situation – you want a job to gain experience but the employers want to employ someone with experience which you can’t have until you get a job! Through searching the web and talking to career advisers, you will probably come to the conclusion that to take that first step you often must volunteer.

Volunteer travel is now big business and as the pool for governmental and corporate funding is continually shrinking, which is worsened by the increasing number of fund seekers. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are turning to volunteering as a way to fund their conservation or outreach activities. Paying to volunteer in itself sounds wrong, but when you think of yourself as a voluntourist and, if you volunteer, 100% of your money is paid directly to the project then this blow is lessened.

Editor’s Note: While we don’t necessarily advocate for paying for volunteering, (since there are ways to volunteer without paying, like through WWOOF) the author makes a good point that if you are going to pay you should only pay the volunteer organization directly and not a middleman.

Volunteering direct is booking and paying the organization directly rather than pay through an agent. Many excellent projects around the world are crying out for paying volunteers and would be more than happy for you to come along and help out. There are many benefits for joining these smaller organizations. The most important will be that you will increase your contacts and network within the relevant NGO sector.


Kalaweit means Gibbon in Indonesian. This project shows what can be achieved by a traveler with a mission — it is a sheer inspiration to any budding conservationist. In 1999, Chanee, an 18 year old Frenchman, set off on an adventure to save the Gibbons of Borneo. He found a small wildlife center in the center of Kalimantan, Borneo, where he first volunteered and started to buy gibbons from villagers who kept them as pets. At the wildlife center, Chanee helped the Gibbons back to full strength and then set them through the long and tedious process of rehabilitation.

Chanee also started a radio station with hourly messages about gibbon conservation and requests for listeners to report caged Gibbons. The Kalaweit organisation now rehabilitates 300 Gibbons and Siamangs, and employs 50 people (veterinarians and keepers). Before you pay to be a volunteer, it is worth learning about volunteer travel programs. There are so many resources for volunteering abroad and volunteer opportunities to consider.

Help Our Penyu

Penyu means sea turtle. Help Our Penyu is a sea turtle conservation project in the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia. The project was initiated in 2009 by Azimi Ahmad, a Malaysian student. It is a registered charity in Malaysia. The Perhentian Islands are a heaven for travelers following the SE Asia backpacking trail; however, the high tourist population on the islands are causing big problems for the sea turtles. The project seeks to unify sea turtle conservation by engaging the resorts, villagers and school children in sea turtle conservation.

Help Our Penyu has already stopped egg poaching on one major nesting beach in the Perhentian Islands. In 2011 it expanded to protect a second nesting beach. Each week, Help Our Penyu run an after school club for the school children and host an information booth on weekends to engage tourists in marine conservation. Help Our Penyu initiated the Walk for Turtles campaign which was the first large-scale turtle track survey in Terengganu. The turtle track surveys are essential to accurately assess the nesting turtle populations of Terengganu. If you are considering volunteering, there are several things to know about volunteering abroad.

Volunteering in SE Asia: help our penyu

Marine Conservation Cambodia

Founded in early 2008 by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia has committed itself to the comprehensive protection of Cambodia’s marine environment. They assist local communities in the sustainable use of their marine resources and provide alternative forms of income generation through ‘true’ eco-tourism and scuba diving. The project plays a big part in marine research in Cambodia and has an online photographic directory of marine species in Cambodia. MCC has had a positive ID on a seahorse species never found before in Cambodia – Hippocampus mohnikei. MCC has empowered the community at Koh Rung Samleom, who are now self-protecting a globally significant seahorse breeding ground.

Borneo Child Aid Society

In Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, it is estimated that over 50,000 children are not given any schooling. Non-Malaysian children are not entitled to state schooling. The Borneo Child Aid Society is helping to address this issue and are providing basic education for about 10,000 children. The project started in the mid-1990’s and is led by Torben Venning, a Danish humanitarian activist. The society works very closely with the Palm Oil Plantations and is helping to provide education for their foreign workers’ children who are not entitled to state education.

The Borneo Child Aid society learning centers provides the children with basic math, science, Bahasa Malaysia and English lessons. Afternoon activities for the children are conducted with environmental awareness sessions at least once a week. The Borneo Child Aid Society is expanding its learning center network to offer floating schools to the sea gypsies of the Sulu Sea (Bajau Laut) who live on boats off the coast of Semporna and the southern Philippines.

Ban Roean Ram Workcamps

Ban Roean Ram was founded in 2008 by Jatuporn Jitprapan and Uthai Tongkamkeaw, two passionate and caring Thai women. They now have a team of five Thai people and a few past volunteers are now helping them develop their network internationally. The purpose of the NGO is to develop sustainable development in villages in Southern Thailand. The centers provide locals with education about community development, traditional Thai culture and folk wisdom, (which is being lost) the local environment and nature. In cooperation with temples, schools, local government and with the community, Ban Roean Ram is aiming to establish groups around Southern Thailand with six objectives:

1. collect folk wisdom from sages
2. stimulate cultural as well as economic life in the village
3. improve opportunities for children and youths teaching them about Thai traditions
4. offer activities such as music, sports and establish a shop with local products
5. found local museums
6. found libraries

Fistula Horror Stories: Socially Conscious Travel & Human Rights

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. 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 fund raise 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. You’re volunteering  to make a positive impactful opportunity and volunteer make lasting impact, what better way spend your summer making positive change? Impactful projects  around the world and make a real difference. Many opportunities around that are making an impact on local real people.

(photo credit: 1mklipovsky)