28 September 2005


Having spent a fair bit of time in Africa, as well as just being generally aware of the world around me, I have the realization at least once a day of how lucky am. Being born at the time I was, in the United States, to two loving, well-educated parents, that's pretty much winning the lottery and Nobel Prize for Life combined.

Which is not to say that I'm never unhappy and resentful and longing for more more more. But almost nightly, when I'm lying in my comfortable bed, my two cats curled next to me, having eaten whatever I wanted for dinner and brushed my teeth in clean, hot water, listening to whatever soothing music I think will slow my racing brain so I can sleep, I remember how fortunate I am to have all this. Who cares that there's barely enough room to turn around in my apartment and that Columbus Avenue traffic roars under my open window 24 hours a day? That there is a layer of grime on all my windows that can never really be cleaned? I am warm, and safe, and healthy.

But then something reminds me how much more than this I have, how much more we all have. If you're able to read this, you know you have it, too.

This morning's New York Times features a story about women in West Africa waiting, praying, suffering, for a simple surgery that will alleviate a traumatic birth injury called obstetric fistula. The Times has written about this before; they should write about it every day. A woman in labor, often a young teenager, tries to deliver her baby at home -- often her only choice -- and it gets stuck in her narrow birth canal. (Add to her body's immaturity the possibility that she has been genitally mutilated, and the chances of this happening increase.) The resulting pressure causes major injuries to her urethra and her bowels. Her baby is most often born dead, and she is left completely incontinent.

As bad as that is, it gets worse. Such women are often shunned by their families and communities. Husbands divorce their wives. And there are not enough doctors, never enough doctors, to fix them.

Fistulas are almost unheard of in the United States anymore. Even the youngest, poorest pregnant woman here has access to some form of health care. In Africa, it is impossible to guess how many women are currently suffering. The United Nations Campaign to End Fistula estimates that there are between 50,000-100,000 new cases in the developing world a year, and that Sub-Saharan African women suffer twice as much sexual and reproductive illness as women in the rest of the world. There are an estimated 400,000-800,000 cases of untreated obstetric fistula in Nigerian alone. The average cost of the operation to repair these fistulas is $300, well out of reach of the average African woman.

But it's not out of our reach. I wish I could do more than just give money (the Fistula Foundation is a particularly worthy organization), but it's a start.


Blogger Stuntmother said...

I've read about this before (or maybe heard about it on the radio) and it's really hard to take in, the awful suffering these women go through and their ostracization by their community and yet how it could be treated so easily -- thanks for writing about it.

The whole FGM thing really gets me screaming but that may be a subject for another day.

11:37 PM  
Blogger One By One said...

Thank you for including obstetric fistula in your blog. To me, it is just not acceptable for any woman to suffer from fistula, particularly because it is so preventable and easy to fix.

As you know from living in Africa, although it will take many, many years of work from many organizations, fistula can be eradicated. As proof, it was virtually eradicated in the States by the late 1800s. Part of the solution is preventing fistulas by increasing awareness, access to skilled birth attendants, access to family planning solutions. And Part of it is providing surgeries for women who are suffering from the condition. The Campaign to End Fistula has a comprehensive look at preventing and curing fistulas.

I am the co-founder of a volunteer initiative, One By One, that is raising awareness and funds for the UN Population Fund's Campaign to End Fistula. As the article points out, $300 is all it costs to bring a woman suffering from this tragic and debilitating condition back to life. One By One uses a giving circle model, where one leader gives $30 and then asks nine friends, family members, neighbors or co-workers to do the same. Together the circle raises $300 - enough money to cover the care for one woman with fistula.

Since our launch in April we have raised over $20,000, enough money to care for 65 women with fistula.

You can learn more about fistula and One By One at www.onebyoneproject.net.

12:22 AM  

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