Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Worldwide Wednesdays: Fistulae 101

First off, how about a quick intro? Last week you met the wonderful Yamina; I’m the second half of the dream team covering Worldwide Wednesdays. My name is Hannah Jackson and I’m a second-year student at Carleton University pursuing a B.A. in linguistics and psychology. I’m a fan of Wikipedia, wandering aimlessly and spending quality time with the Ottawa Public library. I’m incredibly psyched about this blog and the opportunity it gives me to both learn about and share the trials and triumphs of women worldwide.

There are a lot of big, big struggles in the lives of women all over planet Earth. Some of them get relatively good coverage (not quite Kanye-at-the-VMAs coverage, but something is better than nothing) whilst others are barely a blip on our collective radar. This week I’d like to draw your attention to something you may not have heard of. It’s certainly new to me! Whilst sweating on the elliptical yesterday to the sweet, sweet sound of a podcast interview with Peter Singer, I overheard the mention of “obstetric fistula.” I went home and looked it up, and I think it’s something worth knowing about, so here’s a debriefing:

THE WHAT: A fistula is the medical term for a hole that forms between two organs. In the case of women affected by obstetric fistula, this hole forms between the vagina and, usually, the rectum or the bladder. Uncomfortable to think about? Imagine living with it.

THE HOW: There are two main causes. The first is a natural, lovely but brutal-on-the-body process known as childbirth. The intense physical pressure of labour and delivery can commonly cause damage to tissue in the birth canal, and for some women that damage develops into a full-blown fistula. This is almost always preventable, but it strikes women who have little or no access to emergency medical treatment during childbirth.
The second cause is violent sexual assault, and the resulting injury is sometimes instead referred to as a “traumatic fistula.” Fistulas caused by such trauma show up far too commonly in countries in conflict where rape is often used as a weapon of war. Most reports of traumatic fistula are currently coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the number of violent, war-related sexual attacks in the past decade is estimated to be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.

WHAT IT MEANS: The consequences of an obstetric fistula are virtually always devastating to the sufferer. The physical after-effects are one matter: fistulas can be responsible for nerve damage, and the presence of a hole means that there’s leakage of bodily fluids and/or waste that the woman cannot control. The social and psychological effects are in many ways as destructive. A woman suffering from a fistula is often abandoned by her husband, family and friends. She is left disabled and unable to work, which can lead to further financial crisis for women who are already living in poverty. Furthermore, births resulting in fistula usually also result in the infant being stillborn. To summarise: your typical obstetric fistula victim has either suffered horrific rape or the loss of her baby. As if that isn’t overwhelming enough, she goes on to endure social isolation that will leave her feeling powerless and shameful.

THE FIX: I wouldn’t be giving you all this bad news if I didn’t have good news. You have the power to help women who are going through the physical and emotional pain caused by fistulas. Seriously, you do. As serious as fistulas are, the procedure to repair them is quite simple and inexpensive. All that’s needed is a surgeon trained in fistula repair and money to cover the cost. The price tag on surgery, complete postoperative care and follow-up for one woman is about $325 Canadian. You do the math: if 5 friends each have 55 bucks to spare, they could pool for a fancy iPod. Or they could drastically improve the quality of someone’s life.
If you can’t afford to give, you can still help! Many organizations are dedicated to raising awareness and providing care for afflicted women and girls, and their websites list many ways you can make a difference for free, including fundraising ideas, volunteer opportunities and Important Government People you can write to. Check them out:

Yamina will bring you next week's Worldwide Wednesday. If you just can't get enough women's rights, I'll leave you with a helpful link for keeping tabs on the battles being fought worldwide: the UN's WomenWatch.

Keep on keeping on, Athenites, and remember to think globally.


1 comment:

  1. Wow, first of all, I love this blog. No joke, it's going on my reading list.

    Back to this post, I remember reading about a woman who had been abondoned by her family after developing a fistula at 15. I wish I could link to the article, but it was a few years ago. Anway, I'm looking forward to getting involved in helping these women.