DODOMA, Tanzania — Lying side by side on a narrow bed, talking and giggling and poking each other with skinny elbows, they looked like any pair of teenage girls trading jokes and secrets.
But the bed was in a crowded hospital ward, and between the moments of laughter, Sarah Jonas, 18, and Mwanaidi Swalehe, 17, had an inescapable air of sadness. Pregnant at 16, both had given birth in 2007 after labor that lasted for days. Their babies had died, and the prolonged labor had inflicted a dreadful injury on the mothers: an internal wound called a fistula, which left them incontinent and soaked in urine. – The New York Times
Obstetric fistula can occur when a woman or girl does not receive adequate medical treatment during obstructed labor. It is a condition common in child brides, who often have hips too narrow to pass a baby. The mother’s bladder, uterus, and vagina are crushed between her pelvic bones and the baby’s head. The damaged tissue dies, leaving a hole that lets urine stream out through the vagina. Sometimes the rectum is damaged and stool leaks out. Some women suffer nerve damage to the legs and have difficulty walking for the rest of their lives.
Fistula destroys girls and ruins families. Husbands and families sometimes reject the ‘damaged’ girl because of the smell and she becomes an outcast. Often families who are already poor will impoverish themselves completely to try to fix the girl.
Fistula afflicts 2 million women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia with 100,000 new cases every year. Fistula is treatable. Reconstructive surgery can mend the injury, and success rates are as high as 90 per cent for uncomplicated cases. (For complicated cases, the success rate is closer to 60 per cent.) Non-profit groups, hospitals and governments have created programs to provide the surgery, but the capacity of these programs cannot meet the demand. Many women are not even unaware that treatment is available.
The key to ending fistula is prevention. Ending child marriage would be a significant step toward this goal.
To learn more about fistula visit UNFPA Campaign to End Fistula.
Learn more about child marriage at NOW on PBS “Child Brides: Stolen Lives.