“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, it 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, a nineteen-year-old living in my community in Mashonaland, West Province, Zimbabwe, is one of the many women suffering from 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. However, the 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,” said Nyaradzai.
“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 after labor. At first, I thought maybe I was delaying going to the toilet, 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,” she told me.
Nyaradzai’s story could be the story of many women living with fistula in Zimbabwe and other developing countries. 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, what it means for women, and that women feel ashamed talking about it.
A fistula is a passage or hole that has formed between the two organs in one’s body. Obstetric fistula is the primary type of fistula that affects women in developing countries due to poor obstetric care, and can be caused by a prolonged and obstructed labour without treatment. Statistics show that at least 2 million women in developing countries are living with fistula.
Obstetric fistula is an abnormal opening that develops between the birth canal and the urinary tract. Young girls whose birth canals are still narrow can often experience fistula as the head of the baby presses hard on the mother’s bladder causing a tear which, if not surgically repaired, will cause a continuous leakage of urine.
Today marks International Day to End Obstetric Fistula. It is important that we talk about fistula, teach communities about it and encourage women to help one another through education and empowerment and delaying marriage and child bearing.