I walked into a brightly lit ward of the Danja Fistula Center in a rural area of Niger hoping to talk to a girl or two about their experience.
In all honesty, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I was traveling through Niger on a UNFPA media mission to look at women and health, capture stories and hopefully share them when I returned to the States. Ali Hassane, a deputy representative of UNFPA in Niger had been my guide throughout the week and after visiting with local traditional chiefs on this particular day, suggested that we also stop at Danja to, “see the place.”
We were met by a grounds keeper and escorted into a building with bare white walls, a great fan buzzing in the corner and countless rows of hospital beds—each bearing placards with a name, age and date of surgery.
As we walked through the room, Hassane explained that women and girls from all over Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria traveled to this center because the operation, care and rehabilitation services were free.
One of the more jarring injuries sustained during childbirth, Obstetric Fistula affects more than 2 million women in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab region.
Causing a woman to leak urine or feces, or both due to a tear from the vagina to the anus, Fistula is a dehumanizing complication that leaves many women and girls feeling isolated and ashamed. Some are cast out of their families; others abandoned by their husbands and even made the laughing stock of their communities.
The causes are diverse. Women living in impoverished areas who have no access to prenatal care or skilled birth attendants during delivery are also affected by Fistula.
Girls prone to early marriage, gender based violence and women who have had many children consecutively without spacing births fall pray to this depressing consequence during childbirth. Lack of education and resources are also driving factors.
While taking pictures and listening intently to the stories that were being shared, I walked passed a sole bed with a young girl sitting on top. I was told she was part of the Tuareg tribe, Berber people of northern Niger—most of whom live a nomadic lifestyle.
She sat with her ankles crossed, dangling from below the bed. Her shoulders were hunched and she looked down, her hands clasped in her lap.
There was something about her I couldn’t get over. I was fixated by the young girl in front of me who wouldn’t dare meet my gaze.
In a whisper, Hassane told me that she was awaiting surgery. At 17 years of age and after her first sexual experience, she had become pregnant and suffered fistula during delivery.
For a moment, I wanted the ground to enter and be swallowed by it.
Her eyes were hallow and conveyed a guilt that I have not been able to wipe from my memory. Standing there in that room on that hot Wednesday in July, I thought to myself: no young girl should ever feel such guilt. It’s not her fault.
This is why the Danja Center is an integral part of the fight against Fistula.
The center itself is a one-stop-shop, countlessly meeting the needs of every woman and girl. Doing about three to four operations a week, sometimes twice on one day, the Danja Center not only gives each woman a place to rest and heal, but it also offers skills building courses in sewing, economic development and literacy.
Throughout the carefully manicured grounds, one spots a gaggle of girls under a tree reciting sentences in French, or meticulously correcting needlework on a piece of cloth.
The idea is that a woman not only receives a corrective surgical procedure, but she obtains vocational training to effectively integrate her back into the community.
The most astute difference I noticed while touring the facility was the difference in demeanor before, and after surgery.
The girls before surgery have their heads hanging low, quietly sitting by themselves, while the girls who had just undergone surgery spotted bright smiles, giggling away after every photo taken.
It’s easy to understand why: dignity has been restored.
Thanks to the Danja Fistula Center, women not only receive a life changing operation, but they leave empowered, skilled and confident to go back into the world that one alienated them and say, “I matter. I am dignified.”