It’s easy to ignore things you don’t know anything about. Obstetric fistula is one of those things. But it’s a devastating childbirth injury to women who experience it, usually lethal to unborn babies and – here’s the encouraging news – not only treatable but largely preventable.
Obstetric fistula is a hole in the birth canal caused by protracted, obstructed labour. Left untreated, it can lead to infection, disease, and infertility. Moreover, women leak urine and faeces, which may cause her husband to abandon her, her community to shun her and employment opportunities to vanish. She is resigned to a life of misery and isolation.
The injury has all but disappeared in rich countries but persists in poorer countries – an estimated 500,000 women and girls live with the condition. Young bodies not ready for pregnancy and childbirth in the case of child marriage or unintended pregnancy are especially vulnerable. And COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem with spikes in child marriages – a violation of bodily autonomy – disruptions to family planning and sexual and reproductive health services and inequities in health care systems.
With its many partners, UNFPA helped launch and leads the Campaign to End Fistula, which works in more than 55 countries on prevention, treatment and rehabilitation efforts. The injury can be prevented by reproductive health care, family planning, skilled birth attendants and emergency obstetric care. It can be treated with reconstructive surgery, though many women and girls don’t know about treatment, can’t access it or can’t afford it. UNFPA has supported more than 120,000 surgical repairs, including for Razia Shamshad, pictured above with her daughter in Karachi, © UNFPA Pakistan.
The theme of this year’s observance is “Women’s rights are human rights! End fistula now!” It shouldn’t be left to the fates who survives and who suffers such a grievous injury. Everyone deserves a life of dignity, and the day serves as a reminder that we cannot ignore such a promise.