As the world observes International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, Mercy Ships celebrates its partnerships doing just that

Freedom from Fistula partnership

As the world observes International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, Mercy Ships celebrates its partnerships doing just that

20-year-old Mairamou should have been excited about her future.

She and her husband had eagerly anticipated the birth of their first child. But after a prolonged labour, she lost the baby and was left with a condition known as an obstetric fistula (OBF), making her incontinent.

Mairamou’s grief intensified when, just three months after the death of her baby, her husband suddenly passed away. She’d lost her baby, her husband, and her future.

Seven years passed. Mairamou tried to keep a positive attitude by focusing on things that brought her joy, but her condition affected her interactions with others, and her community rejected her. “People didn’t want me there,” she said sadly. “They would tell me to go home because of the smell.”

Mairamou eventually heard that the Africa Mercy was coming to Cameroon. After making the long trip, and receiving surgery onboard the ship, Mairamou was ready for a new beginning. She said, “There is a big difference in my heart. Before, I was worried and had bad thoughts. I’m a different person. I am free to go wherever I want. My doubts are gone!”

The need to end obstetric fistula

An estimated 2 million women and girls in Africa currently endure the unspeakable suffering of a traumatic childbirth that leaves them in pain, outcast and incontinent.

The lack of access to maternity care means they struggle with a prolonged, obstructed labour and are left with a debilitating condition called obstetric fistula (OBF).

Tragically, sometimes their babies do not even survive the birth and the women are left, not only struggling with their devastating loss, but permanently leaking urine, and sometimes faeces.

On May 23, International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, we look at this taboo condition that causes women to be ostracised and isolated and what Mercy Ships is doing to help.

Ostracised and demoralised: the obstacles to surgery

The impact of OBF goes far beyond the physical. As a result of being incontinent, many women experience tragic social shunning and find themselves on the sidelines of their communities and sometimes even their families.

Being outcast from society often leads to deep feelings of shame and loneliness. For the many women who can’t afford surgery, there’s no end in sight: without surgical intervention, the condition can last for the rest of their lives.

Due to being ostracised and demoralised, seeking help for this taboo condition comes with major social and emotional barriers. Often, the would-be patients are also physically isolated in remote villages.

Not only does Mercy Ships carry out OBF surgery on its ships but it also has a powerful partnership on land.

Lives transformed through Freedom from Fistula

Like-minded NGO, Freedom from Fistula (FFF) and Mercy Ships are long-term partners. Last year, Mercy Ships UK supporters donated £250,000 specifically to see the lives of 500 women transformed.

This money will is paying for 400 women to undergo surgery at FFF’s centre in Madagascar and 100 in Sierra Leone. In addition, FFF raises awareness of the condition and the issues surrounding it across the country, training local healthcare workers. Its holistic approach realises that healing from this condition is more than just physical.

Patients experience a rehabilitation course that is designed to break the cycle of poverty and reintegrate them back into society, ready for all future opportunities. The Patient Rehabilitation, Education and Empowerment Programme includes business training, health education, literacy and numeracy classes and arts and crafts. There is also preventive maternity care in place to stop OBF from occurring in the first place.

A renovation of the Madagascar centre, also funded by Mercy Ships, is currently in progress to make the building more functional for patients and staff alike.

Celebrating Success

With an estimated 100,000 women a year around the world suffering this devastating injury, Mercy Ships and its partners have their work cut out.
Mercy Ships Womens’ Health Programme has carried out 3,442 surgeries to date, many of these are for OBF.

The transformation experienced by the women and girls who have had surgery is one worth celebrating and that is done with style with a special day onboard: the Dress Ceremony.

Recovered OBF patients become the stars of the show and are gifted with a beautiful dress and are at the heart of colourful party that always includes plenty of dancing. The symbolic celebration also marks their reconnection with their community and dispels all their feelings of shame.

Joy is contagious

“I had this sickness for five years… but, today, it is finished! Now, when I wake up, I find myself dry. I’m fine – I have no problem now!” shared Bibiane, a mother-of-five who received surgery to heal her OBF in Benin.

Jacqueline had been abandoned by her husband and shunned by her community after living with OBF. Finally, after eight years of suffering from incontinence, Jacqueline was healed during our field service in Cameroon. She said, “I’m tired of living how I’ve been living, but now I am stronger and will have more opportunities!”

Former Obstetric Fistula clinic team leader, Tam Lowe said, “Being a woman and coming from a western culture, we don’t go through this. It’s nice to be able to give these ladies back their lives, because they lost a little part of themselves when they went through what they went through. Now, they can go back home and say ‘Look at me. I’m back.’”

Together we can make a difference

According to the World Health Organisation, the world faces a shortage of 900,000 midwives right now. Not only are a staggering amount of women left with obstetric fistulas due to insufficient medical care but millions of lives are lost.

This shocking disparity is one that Mercy Ships and its partners are trying to meet through healthcare training and strengthening surgical systems.

On this International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, let us celebrate the courageous women whose lives have been transformed — and the many more to come.

But let us also remember how much more needs to be done to help those in desperate need.

Together we can change this.