Fistula Survivors Speak Out at Women Deliver Conference

19 October 2007
Author: UNFPA

LONDON—They travelled from different places across Africa—Sudan, Tanzania, Niger, Nigeria, Kenya—but their common stories brought them together at Women Deliver , a landmark conference focused on curbing pregnancy-related death and disability.

As part of the Campaign to End Fistula, a delegation of six fistula survivors shared harrowing tales of childbirth gone wrong in panel events and plenaries, building awareness—on a global platform—of this preventable and treatable injury. Each presentation ended with a call to action, urging greater support and resources for safe motherhood.

A delegation of six fistula survivors travelled to London to share their stories at the Women Deliver Conference Photo: David Rose/Panos/UNFPA

“Parliamentarians, doctors, philanthropists—we need your help,” said Fatima Lawal Aliyu, a 34-year-old fistula survivor from Nigeria and one of four presenters in a panel on obstetric fistula. “Let us join together to bring a helping hand to women through adequate funding and support.”

More than 500,000 die each year in pregnancy and childbirth and 10 million more suffer debilitiating injuries like obstetric fistula, a hole in the birth canal that leaves women leaking urine or faeces, or both, uncontrollably. In most cases, their babies are stillborn.

“You are here in London carrying a message of hope—hope that one day, childbirth will be safe and healthy for all women,” said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA, in a special address to the women. “You are ambassadors for women who have suffered in silence, whose voices cannot be heard today.”

Fistula advocate Fatima Lawal Aliyu of Nigeria shares her story at the Women Deliver conference. Photo: David Rose/Panos/UNFPA

Speaking at an afternoon plenary before a 1500-plus audience of health professionals, heads of UN agencies, researchers and government officials, Awatif Altayib Mohammad of West Darfur, Sudan, introduced herself as a fistula advocate, a midwife and a mother. “I call on NGOs and governments to support reproductive health and women’s education, and to provide emergency transportation and comprehensive care to prevent fistula and save the lives of women and children,” she said.

Earlier in the week, the delegation of fistula survivors participated in a three-day advocacy workshop hosted by UNFPA and CEDPA, the Centre for Development and Population Activities. Following a series of group sessions on leadership, self-identity and public speaking, the women reported feeling a sense of empowerment and an eagerness to share their stories with a wide audience.

“I am very happy. I can now speak bravely in front of people,” said 62-year-old Martina Labia, a mother of 11 who lived with fistula for 35 years.

Halima Idrissa, 18, of Niger echoed the sentiment: “For a long time, I had hoped to speak out in public. I feel so relieved—like a burden that was there before has been lifted.”

Many of the women expressed an interest in sharing their experiences with national stakeholders after they return home from London. UNFPA will support their continued advocacy at the national level in the months ahead.

A global Campaign to End Fistula, led by UNFPA, is helping to prevent fistula, treat affected women, and support women after surgery. The Campaign is working in more than 40 countries across Africa, Asia and the Arab region, and involves a wide range of partners.

United Kingdom
Population : 67 mil
Fertility rate
Maternal Mortality Ratio
Contraceptives prevalence rate
Population aged 10-24
Youth secondary school enrollment
Boys 98%
Girls 98%