By Elsa Sichrovsky
Giving birth to a baby is physically painful and psychologically stressful for any woman, but for women in Niger, childbirth can debilitating as it frequently results in a condition that plagues them with chronic incontinence for the rest of their lives: obstetric fistula. Prolonged labor without medical interventions such as cesarean section and forceps delivery can create a hole in the birth canal. Blood, urine, andr feces constantly leak through this hole, causing physical pain and psychological shame, and even complete ostracization for women who live in a society that sees incontinence as the result of poor personal hygiene.
What’s worse, most of the births that resulted in obstetric fistula were stillbirths. Mothers have to deal with the emotional pain of losing their child after a tortuous childbirth process while coping with the incredible discomfort and increased risk of infection that results from obstetric fistula. At this vulnerable point in their lives, their husbands may leave them due to disappointment with the stillbirth or disgust over their incontinence. Obstetric fistula sufferers have to endure the daily struggle of mastering specific ways of sitting and dressing themselves to hide their condition from friends, family and even their spouses. For many women, the strain of hiding a shameful secret and the fear of humiliating exposure leads to isolation and loss of social relationships.
In desperation, women have to travel long distances to seek careas treatment centers are few and far . After waiting for months for a slot in the surgery schedule, they may face the disappointment of unsuccessful surgery. When the surgery fails to restore continence, women must find ways to pass as continent for fear of frustrating eager friends and family. The process of waiting in treatment centers and undergoing multiple surgeries to regain continence can take up to a decade. As women end up spending years of their lives seeking treatment without success, fighting despair becomes a struggle.
The upside is that obstetric fistula is preventable as it is a disease of poverty, which is nonexistent in first world countries. Besides making medical resources more easily accessible for rural women, combating child marriage is also key to reducing the incidence of obstetric fistula. Operation Fistula describes the profile of the average woman with fistula: her first pregnancy within three years of her first menstruation and married below the age of eighteen to a husband at least five years older than her. Dr. Abdoulaye Idrissa, director of Niger’s National Fistula Center, pointed out, “The essential factors remain poverty, illiteracy, access to health care services…there are social factors also, like early marriage.” He frequently sees patients as young as 12 or 13 in his treatment center.
complex these social issues are, Wells Bring Hope believes that a brighter
future can be built for Niger’s women. Drilling a well is the first step
because when girls don’t have to join their mothers in walking for water, they
stay in school. When girls have the chance to get an education, they delay
marriage and childbearing, thereby reducing their chance of developing a
fistula. When a well is drilled, women receive microfinance training. As the
women gain financial independence and grow in confidence, they are able to
provide for their families and afford a better standard of living. Their
daughters can see that there is an alternative to the life they used to know.
With consistent efforts to nurture and educate women, the vicious cycle of
poverty and child marriage can be brought to an end. Anyone can be a part of
this exciting project by volunteering or donating to Wells Bring Hope!