Despite the efforts of public figures like talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, singer and actress Natalie Imbruglia, and model Liya Kebede, most Americans have never heard of obstetric fistula. Fistula, which affects at least 2 million women in Africa, Asia and the Arab region, receives little media attention because it is a condition that primarily affects impoverished women and girls living in rural areas. (credits for photos of girls, left and below right)
Obstetric fistula refers to a hole created in the birth canal caused by prolonged childbirth. During the unattended and days-long labor, the baby’s head puts pressure on the woman’s sensitive tissue around the pelvic bone. The pressure causes a hole to form between the vagina and the bladder, the vagina and the rectum, or both. Women are left incontinent and in almost all cases the baby is born dead.
Women suffering from fistula face devastating social consequences. They are shunned by their communities, their families and even their husbands. Unable to work or socialize, many are simply left to the ravages of additional medical complications, the grief of losing a child, and deep shame and humiliation which often leads to suicide.
The condition, despite the immense misery it causes, is easily treated with a 90% success rate for just $300, including post-operative care and support. While access to adequate medical care during delivery is urgently needed in many parts of the world, more than that will be required to stop the problem altogether. The United Nations has taken action through the Population Fund, launching the Campaign to End Fistula in 2003. With a goal of eliminating the problem by 2015, the focus is on “empowering women and girls, enhancing their life opportunities and delaying marriage and childbirth.” But that is no easy task; “ending fistula worldwide will demand political will, additional resources, and strengthened collaboration between governments, community groups, NGOs and health professionals.” (credit for photo of surgery, left)
Films like A Walk to Beautiful, an award-winning documentary chronicling the lives of girls seeking treatment, play a tremendous role in educating the developed world about the problem, and hopefully inspire a flow of additional resources to organizations working to alleviate the problems causing fistula in the first place. For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, the film premiers there on April 4th with a Q&A with the filmmakers. The film will begin its regular run on April 8th.