It has only been two years since I realized how important vaginas are and how the lack of an intact one can ruin a life. I guess you could say I was a late bloomer, so late that it wasn’t until I turned 16 that I decided to talk to my whole school about this particular part of the anatomy. In the early morning when I stood in the Atlanta Girls’ School hallway to give out cranberry cake and talk about vaginas, was the day I faced my greatest fear.
As the cool winter air blew through the hallways, I hardly felt a chill, as my face was as hot as a cinnamon Altoid, and just as red. What felt like an eternity, had only been forty-five minutes and I sighed with relief because the start of the school day was only minutes away. Just as I was about to book it to class, my art teacher Mr. Grainger walked through the door. “Oh no,” I thought, “I went this whole morning without having to explain to a male teacher about leaking vaginas and now, there is no escaping it.” I took a deep breath, offered him a sample of cake, and then proceeded to explain my cause; “I am fundraising for repair surgeries for women living with obstetric fistula. Obstetric fistula is a birth injury that affects women.” My mind raced with self-doubt, “Really? Birth injuries affect women? Am I sure?” Again, my face matched the crimson of my cranberry cakes. My voice cracked as I tried to regain my composure and explain what few want to talk about; women living with obstetric fistula.
Does saying this word make you uncomfortable? For most of my life, saying any words made me uncomfortable. I had a terrible fear of speaking to others. I was terrified not of what I would say, but of blushing uncontrollably. On cue, whenever I spoke up in class or in front of groups of people, a blotchy wave of red would slowly creep up my chest. It didn’t matter what I was saying or to whom I was talking to, even speaking to a group of my closest friends would cause this mortifying reaction. Why then did I decide to initiate discussions about vaginas with my entire school? A word so delicate, that even hearing it makes some of us cringe and causes the room to get a tad awkward. I chose to talk about vaginas because there is no other option when talking about obstetric fistula.
By being able to say the word “vagina” we take one step closer to helping women such as Workinesh. I chose not to speak this word with such passion until I learned about her when my parents travelled to Ethiopia with Johnson & Johnson to film global health programs. Workinesh lives in the Ethiopian countryside with her daughter. Workinesh developed obstetric fistula while she was in a weeklong labor, which resulted in the death of her child and the loss of her dignity. This excruciating labor created a hole in her birth canal and caused her to become incontinent. Incontinent. It might sound minor, but in the case of someone with obstetric fistula it means a constant uncontrollable leaking of urine and sometimes feces. When Workinesh began to leak and smell of urine she was shunned by her family and she and her daughter were abandoned by her husband.
Rigid gender roles are a part of life in many low resource regions and this is the case in rural parts of Ethiopia where Workinesh lives. Women are expected to get married and have children at a young age, often before their bodies are fully developed. Without adequate access to medical resources, pregnant women cannot receive C-sections if their hips are not wide enough to give birth vaginally or if the baby is in a bad position. This prolonged and obstructed vaginal birth can result in a fistula and most often a stillbirth. This is just the start of what will be a lifetime of physical and emotional pain. In many cases, women and girls affected by fistula are forced to live in isolation within their own villages because of the smell their bodies emit. Viewed as a curse by family and friends, the women are prone to depression and many turn to suicide as a way to escape their pain. In all this hardship, there is a solution—prevent women from getting it in the first place and repair the women who already have it. There is no quick way to make the complex healthcare improvements needed to prevent obstetric fistula but my goal is to raise awareness about something much more achievable. Repair measures can be taken to change a woman’s life. $586.00 is all it takes to pay for restorative surgery that can give women like Workinesh renewed hope.
All this meant that I needed to talk to my classmates about vaginas in the hallway that winter day and for many days to come. It wasn’t easy then, and it isn’t easy now but every dollar raised is affirmation that these awkward conversations can lead to change. No matter how embarrassed I become it is nothing compared to the suffering of women living with obstetric fistula, many in countries most of us will never visit. Speaking the truth at times is difficult but women living with obstetric fistula are counting on it and it is what we should do. Learn more by visiting the Fistula Foundation.
Since 2014, Sofia has raised enough funds to pay for 8 surgeries.
Cover photo credit and caption: Raising awareness at Atlanta Girls’ School. November 20, 2015, Kupona Foundation, Fistula Foundation