“It’s been three years now, I can’t wear underwear, urine is always leaking. I have developed sores on my genitals that aren’t healing because of the moisture. I dread going out in public.
The last time I went to a gathering, people distanced themselves from me because of the bad smell. I repelled them. I’m confined to this house so I can bathe each time I soil myself. My entire family believes I was cursed, they say no one has ever had a disease like mine before.”
Nyaradzai is a 19-year-old living in my community in Mashonaland, Zimbabwe. She is one of many women suffering from obstetric fistula.
Like many others, Nyaradzai has been unaware that hers is a condition that needs medical attention. She tells me her story:
“Three years ago, I dropped out of school. I was pregnant. My parents chased me from my home, so I went to stay at my boyfriend’s house. He was still in high school too, but his parents accepted me. I stayed there for six months.
My baby died while I was in labour. It took me 6 hours to get to the nearest clinic – I was walking because my in-laws couldn’t afford to hire an ambulance to take me there. When I arrived, the nurses ignored me. In fact, they scolded me for getting pregnant at such a tender age. I was 16 at the time. While I was in labor, I passed out. I can’t recall what happened, but when I gained consciousness, I was in so much pain.
When my in-laws heard that I had delivered a stillborn baby, they called me a witch and returned me to my parents’ house. My problems started a few days later.
At first, I thought I just wasn’t making it to the toilet in time, but I was also wetting the bed at night. Now when I go to sleep I take a cloth and place it between my legs and put a plastic sheet underneath me so I won’t wet the bed. I can’t wear underwear because of the sores on my genitals.”
Nyaradzai’s story could be the story of many women living with fistula in Zimbabwe.
Fistula is a silent condition, and as a result many women are suffering in silence. Huge numbers of people are not aware of what it is or what it means for women.
A fistula is a passage or hole that has formed between two organs. Obstetric fistula is an abnormal opening that develops between the birth canal and the urinary tract. It is the primary type of fistula affecting women in developing countries.
Obstetric fistula is caused by lack of access to quality obstetric care, particularly prolonged and obstructed labour without treatment. Young girls can be at high risk, as their birth canals are still narrow. The head of the baby causes a tear between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum which, if not surgically repaired, leaves women incontinent.
2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Arab region, and Latin America and the Caribbean are living with fistula.
As Nyaradzai has experienced, the social isolation associated with physical symptoms can have significant mental health consequences. Obstetric fistula is almost entirely preventable, and its prevalence in the world is a sign that health systems are failing women.
I share Nyaradzai’s story today, on International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, to try to break the silence.
It is important that we talk about fistula, teach communities about it and encourage women to help one another through education, empowerment and delaying marriage and child bearing.
Read more on girlsglobe.org and join the conversation online using #EndFistula.