Highlighting the Fistula Foundation

I’ve been following the work of the Fistula Foundation for a number of years now. Let me tell you a bit what they do.

First up, you may be wondering what a fistula is. From the Foundation FAQ page (a trigger warning on this next paragraph:

A fistula is a hole. An obstetric fistula of the kind that occurs in many developing countries is a hole between a woman’s birth passage and one or more of her internal organs. This hole develops over many days of obstructed labor, when the pressure of the baby’s head against the mother’s pelvis cuts off blood supply to delicate tissues in the region. The dead tissue falls away and the woman is left with a hole between her vagina and her bladder (called a vesicovaginal fistula or VVF) and sometimes between her vagina and rectum (rectovaginal fistula, RVF). This hole results in permanent incontinence of urine and/or feces. A majority of women who develop fistulas are abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by their communities because of their inability to have children and their foul smell.

Obstetric fistulas are presently most common in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Regularly they are a direct result of rape, often in conflict zones and as a tool of war. Young women often develop fistulas as their young bodies are sufficiently developed to become pregnant, but not to carry easily. Also:

The root causes of fistula are grinding poverty and the low status of women and girls. In developing countries, the poverty and malnutrition in children contributes to the condition of stunting, where the girl skeleton, and therefore pelvis as well, do not fully mature. This stunted condition can contribute to obstructed labor, and therefore fistula.

Again, it’s poor women in isolated areas with little by way of medical care who are suffering. Stillbirths are more common than not. Only a fraction of the women living with fistulas have undergone repair surgeries – most fistulas can be fixed with surgery – with only a few thousand being performed in a year. Statistics are understandably hard to come by, but WHO puts the number of women living with fistulas at at least two million. And, as the UNFPA says, 50 000 to 100 000 new cases develop each year. These women become further impoverished and cut off from their communities, and can develop psychological issues in addition to their other medical concerns. This is horrific.

Which is why I am so glad for the Fistula Foundation, one of the main organisations working in this area. Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by Dr Catherine Hamlin, who founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia in 1974. That one hospital has treated more than 32 000 women so far. The Foundation is now supporting hosptials in D.R. Congo, Angola and Afghanistan as well as in Ethiopia. Their programs are quite comprehensive, working on prevention, treatment and education programs. They’ve done everything from fund medical training for surgeons to education programs to building hospitals to setting up a village in Ethiopia for women who can’t return home. There are now even mini-hospitals for those who can’t make it to the main one in Addis Ababa.

You can donate here. It’s tax deductible if you’re in the US. Check out the Fistula Foundation website for more.

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8 comments for “Highlighting the Fistula Foundation

  1. November 18, 2009 at 1:02 am

    Dr Catherine Hamlin is one of my personal heroes. Every time I read about obstetric fistulas I want to cry – this time I shall donate instead. What a worthy issue to bring to wider attention Chally.

  2. November 18, 2009 at 2:26 am

    One interesting way to donate to the Fistula Foundation would be to buy this book, doing so would send all profit to the Fistula Foundation. “One Dimensional Woman”, by Nina Power. It is from Zero Books and can be purchased from Verso or Amazon. The book was just released and it asks many interesting questions about Feminism and it’s co-optation by Sarah Palin, etc.

  3. lilacsigil
    November 18, 2009 at 3:10 am

    I donate monthly, and it’s also tax deductible in Australia if you donate more than $2. While I sometimes feel uncomfortable with the strong colonialist overtones of some of the things Dr Hamlin says, the work that the hospital does is so vital, and so vastly under-resourced, that I donate. Thanks for posting about this.

  4. November 18, 2009 at 3:58 am

    Thanks for the info, lilacsigil, including about the colonialist overtones, I will have to find out more :S.

  5. Cooker
    November 18, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Wow. That is amazing. At work we are going to do a donation raffle instead of exchanging re-gifted crap for the holidays this year. We’re going to sell scraps of paper for a buck a pop to staff and for each scrap they get to write the name of an organization they support on it. Then whoever is wearing the most absurd festive ensemble will get to draw the winning organization and they get the pot. I will definitely buy a scrap for the Fistula Foundation.

  6. Aunti Disestablishmentarian
    November 18, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    A few years back, I read about Mamitu Gashe, an Ethopian woman who became one of the most skilled fistula surgeons in the world, training medical students in the procedure, and performing thousands herself. She was from a small village, and was illiterate.

    Turns out she works (worked?) out of the same hospital Dr. Hamlin set up. I’ve heard little else about her, other than N. Kristof’s NYT article, and a few humble mentions of her in the FF newsletter, some recognition within the Etheopian medical community, and am wondering why more people have not heard of her; A case of Kristof’s manufacturing an underdog feel-good story, racism within FF? Other factors? From outside the situation, we will not have a clear picture, but I wanted to draw attention to Mamitu Gashe’s inspirational achievements and contribution to women’s health.

  7. Katherine Kramer
    November 18, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    I know of this hospital and hope to volunteer there in the next few years. I did several medical missions, mostly in the caribbean and did get to fix fistulas there, among other things.

  8. Sei
    November 19, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Thank you so much for posting this.

    In my work, I deal with refugee issues, and the stories women tell of the long-term physical effects (mostly fistulas and secondary infections caused by the fistulas) of rapes they’ve experienced or from childbirth after infibulation…well, they’re enough to give me nightmares.

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