Meeting courageous women living with fistula in Tanzania

Victoria from Tanzania and words reading: International Day to End Obstetric Fistula
Kate Mortimer, Communications Officer at CBM UK
Author:Kate Mortimer
Posted on: Thursday, 23rd May, 2019

Today is International Day to End Obstetric Fistula. If that comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. I’d never heard of this devastating condition until I became part of the CBM family. But recently, I was fortunate enough to visit one of CBM’s programmes providing treatment and support for women living with fistula. It was a deeply moving visit that had a huge impact on me and I want to share this story with you to help raise awareness of this disabling condition.

I arrived in Tanzania on a very hot and sunny morning. Our driver expertly navigated his way through the traffic as dust filled the air from passing tuk-tuks and mini buses. There were men sitting in groups at the side of the road, sheltered by the shade of palm trees, and women walking by balancing crates of bananas and shopping bags on their heads, with long skirts sweeping the floor.

At our partner hospital, I met Victoria. Victoria is just 22 years old but she has already endured the loss of five babies, with two miscarriages and three stillbirths. When she was seven months pregnant with her fifth child, Victoria went into premature labour. But her family did not believe her and refused to take her to hospital. Victoria continued to feel unwell, and in pain, so her family eventually took her to the local chemist. There, they discovered that the baby was already coming out, hand-first. She had an emergency Caesarean section but the baby did not survive. And after this devastating loss, complications during the operation left Victoria leaking urine constantly – due to fistula.

Fistula leaves women incontinent, leaking urine and faeces uncontrollably. It’s caused by a lack of maternal healthcare. Here in the UK, there are specialist doctors and nurses to deliver the hundreds of thousands of babies born every year. But in low-income countries, a lack of trained medical staff and medicines means many pregnant women face prolonged and dangerous labours. For these women, life that is already challenging becomes even more so. Some live with fistula for years, even decades. Many face stigma and discrimination on a daily basis, shunned by their communities who believe they are cursed.

Because of her fistula, Victoria’s husband abandoned her. She’s been rejected, not only by her own family, but also by her whole community – believing that her condition is connected to witchcraft. Unable to leave her home, she could only sit in the dark and pray for a cure.

Thankfully, Victoria heard about the CBM-supported programme that helps women living with fistula. The only thing that has kept her going is knowing that she will soon receive treatment. And this is all thanks to the generosity of CBM supporters.

This programme also offers counselling and vocational training that teaches women the skills to set up businesses. Victoria told me she wants to set up her own business buying and selling fish at her local market. I cannot wait to hear how her operation goes and how it changes her life for the better.

After spending two days at the hospital, hearing from these courageous and resilient women living with fistula. I left with mixed feelings. I felt angry about the injustice and the discrimination these women had faced. But I also felt uplifted by the hope and healing they had found at the hospital and the comfort they had found from one another.

As part of their therapy, they sang soulful, jubilant songs together. They all gathered at the Tumaini Banda - an outdoor communal area with a thatched roof and benches for the women to sit on. I can still hear one of the songs vividly in my mind – a song about fistula being treatable “Fistula Inatibika”. I was overwhelmed with emotion hearing them sing so joyfully after everything they had been through. And inspired by their determination to help other women living with fistula by raising awareness in their communities.

Their stories will stay with me forever. And I know that there are many more women, with stories just like theirs, who are suffering needlessly. That’s why I’m proud to be part of the CBM family because we really are transforming the lives of women living with this disabling condition in the world’s poorest places.

Image: Victoria from Tanzania, with the caption 'International Day to End Obstetric Fistula'.


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