Imagine getting married as young as 12 – possibly by force – being in painful labor for a week, only to give birth to a baby that has already died. Then waking up to find yourself wet and laying in your own urine and feces and not being able to control it. Then your husband and family kicks you out and you are on your own.
This scenario is played out at least 50,000 to 100,000 times a year in the developing world. It is the horror of obstetric fistula.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about how many women in Afghanistan die while giving birth (1 every 27 minutes by the way). Today’s topic is obstetric fistulas. If you don’t know fistulas are holes that develop between either the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina after severe or failed childbirth, when adequate medical care is not available.
Recently PBS had a documentary about it – I missed it, but heard about it when Rachel wrote a post about it recently: A Walk To Beautiful – Obstetric Fistula Documentary.
You can watch the whole show at the PBS web site: A Walk To Beautiful.
The documentary was focused around a fistula hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia run by Catherine Hamlin.
Many girls in Ethiopia are married between the ages of 9 and 15, whether or not they are willing. They are usually small for their age because of malnutrition and the hard physical labor that is required of them from the time they are still children. Since they are young and small their pelvises are not large enough for a baby to get though. It is not unusual for some of these girls to be in labor for a whole week – only to give birth to a baby that has died. Afterwards, if they developed a fistula they find urine and/or feces leaking uncontrollably from their bodies.
Most often their husband turns them out. Even their parents will often make them live in a shack outside of their family’s home because of the smell and mess from the leaking. Many live for many years in isolation – too ashamed and afraid to go out in public.
For those that find out that it is possible for them to be cured and can get the money to travel to a hospital such as that in Addis Ababa – there is hope.
In the documentary, one of the girls was forced to marry when she was 10 or 11. She ran away a few times but her father kept beating her. Eventually she stayed with the 4th husband because she was pregnant. Another was married at 15 when her husband abducted her.
Catherine Hamlin and her husband founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital to help girls and women like these. It is “the world’s only medical center dedicated exclusively to providing free fistula repair surgery” (source). She is also author of the book: ‘The Hospital by the River’.
Before modern obstetrical care was available many women around the world suffered through this nightmare, but now, it is nearly unheard of in the developed world. In developing countries it is estimated that there are still around 2 million women with fistulas that have not been treated.
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