Home > Article, Birth advocacy > Obstetric Fistula: What it is & How You can Help

Obstetric Fistula: What it is & How You can Help

We are so lucky in our country to have access to midwifery care and emergency obstetric services when needed. In some parts of this world, hundreds of thousands of women are unable seek help when it is needed. These women can labor for days and days, and many times in these terrible situations, their babies are born still. As a result of their traumatic labors, many of these women develop obstetric fistula.

What is a fistula?

“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. Traumatic fistula is the result of sexual violence. The injury can occur through rape or women being butchered from the inside with bayonets, wood or even rifles. The aim is to destroy the women and the community within which the sufferer lives. Once committed the survivor, her husband, children and extended family become traumatized and humiliated.” (Fistula Foundation)

  • Fistula used to be present in the U.S. and Europe, but was largely eliminated in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century with improved obstetric care in general and the use of c-sections in particular to relieve obstructed labor.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 2 million women have untreated fistula and that approximately 100,000 women develop fistula each year. Fistula is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
  • There are an estimated 100,000 women suffering with untreated fistula, and another 9,000 women who develop fistula each year.
  • Less than 6 in 10 women in developing countries give birth with any trained professional, such as a midwife or a doctor.When complications arise, as they do in approximately 15% of all births, there is no one available to treat the woman, leading to disabling injuries like fistula, and even death.
  • 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.
  • But, fistula is both preventable and treatable. For instance, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital has treated over 30,000 women over 33 years. Their cure rate is over 90%. Fistula can be prevented if laboring women are provided with adequate emergency obstetric care when complications arise. (Fistula Foundation)

The Addis Adaba Fistula Hospital provides these surgeries for women in need with donations. For $450, they can provide one woman with a fistula repair operation, high-quality post-operative care, a new dress and bus fare home. What they are giving these women is their life back, and that is an incredibly amazing gift for such a low cost.

How can you help?

You can help by donating any amount to the Fistula Foundation. You can also join their Love-a-Sister program, and donate $450 (either the full amount or 12 monthly installments of $37.50) to ensure that one woman will get the help that she so desperately needs and deserves. If you are unable to donate yourself, please take the time to pass on this information to others. By educating ourselves, we can all work together to support these women, and change the lives of those who are not so different from ourselves.

Also, please take the time to view “A Walk to Beautiful” – this amazing documentary on obstetric fistulas filmed in Ethiopia. The Addis Adaba Fistula Hospital is featured, and you can see the amazing work that they do, as well as witness the incredible transformation these women go through once they are cured.

For more information:

Campaign to End Fistula

The Worldwide Fistula Fund


Fistula Foundation

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