Obstetric fistula, associated with incontinence and social isolation, is hardly glamorous. But two African beauty queens – Miss Ghana@50 and Miss Liberia 2009 – are using their glamour and recognition to raise awareness about this issue that affects some of the most marginalized women in their countries.
Miss Frances Tekyi Mensah began talking about obstetric fistula throughout 2007, the 50th anniversary of her country’s independence, and the year she reigned as Miss Ghana@50. And she hasn’t stopped talking about it since.
In view of the commitment she demonstrated, the Ghana Government nominated her as the Ambassador for Obstetric Fistula. She took on the mission with a strong drive to make a difference across the country.
Breaking the silence surrounding fistula
Initially Miss Tekyi Mensah selected obstetric fistula as the project to take on during her reign because she realized that it affected the poorest, least educated and most marginalized women in her country and elsewhere in Africa and Asia. “They’ve got nothing except faith and hope and urine-soaked clothes,” she said of the women who suffer the indignities of fistula. “Some of them claim ‘even death would be better than this.’ If I could help just one of these women, to me, it is literally, giving that woman her life back.
“A beauty pageant is predominantly about hype and glamour,” she continued. “That’s what the majority of society sees. I see this as the perfect opportunity to use the furor surrounding my title to raise awareness about something that is really important. I am committed to making sure that women with fistula in Ghana receive treatment and that the girls of today don’t have to go through this ordeal when the time comes for them to have babies. I don’t want to be part of the silence.
“Most times, they are no more than adolescents; they should have a chance like I had,” she said as she joined the Campaign to End Fistula.
Spreading the word
Miss Tekyi Mensah spent most of her year as Miss Ghana@50 raising awareness about obstetric fistula in the most remote parts of Ghana. She met tribal chiefs, religious leaders, opinion leaders, men’s groups and several community representatives spreading messages on the importance of prevention and about the possibility of treatment. She also appealed to women with the condition to get treatment and raised funds to support the treatment of about 20 women in the regions she visited.
And, she encouraged 60 other Ghanaians to become local advocates. The group includes fistula survivors, community, religious and traditional leaders, as well as men’s support group representatives and social workers. With the support of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and the Ghana Ministry of Health, the advocates have drawn up action plans to be implemented in 2010.
The advocates, who are drawn from the three Northern regions of the country where the condition is most prevalent, raise awareness about the condition and carry out prevention-related advocacy activities in the areas of family planning, skilled attendance at delivery and emergency obstetric care. They also learned how to advocate for treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration of fistula survivors.
Miss Liberia applauds the courage of survivors
A compelling presentation by Miss Tekyi Mensah at the 2008 Miss World beauty pageant convinced Shu-rina Wiah, who was crowned Miss Liberia 2009, to take on the issue as her project for the year. Throughout 2009, Miss Wiah participated in outreach campaigns to prevent the injury, as well as in projects aimed at empowering survivors.
Recently, for example, she spoke to a group of fistula survivors who were graduation from a rehabilitation and reintegration project in Liberia that is supported by UNFPA. Miss Wiah praised the survivors for their “resilience and courage” in seeking help, and she paid tribute to UNFPA for helping to restore respect and dignity to women affected by fistula. She also urged the fistula survivors who participated in professional development courses to use the skills and training acquired to better their lives.
At the ceremony, Esperance Fundira, the UNFPA representative in Liberia, commended Miss Wiah for her efforts and urged the fistula survivors to spread the word about prevention and treatment of the condition. “Today, as you walk from ‘darkness into light’, starting from the day you were treated, let your light guide others with similar conditions. Go out and be ambassadors for the prevention of fistula in your respective communities,” she said.
Empowering women who have endured enormous psychological and social trauma as a result of fistula to reclaim their place in society is a major goal of the UNFPA-headed Campaign to End Fistula. The campaign also works to make fistula as rare in developing countries as it is those where obstetric care is widely available.
-- based on reports from the Liberia and Ghana UNFPA Country Offices