The power of the individual: How volunteers, counsellors, and doctors helped Jane triumph over obstetric fistula
Girls and Women

The power of the individual: How volunteers, counsellors, and doctors helped Jane triumph over obstetric fistula

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By Alexandra Cairns, Kupona Foundation

When we talk about global health challenges, we often talk in big numbers. As of August this year, there were 7.4 billion people in the world. Up to 5 billion people lack access to basic surgical services like safe anesthesia, surgery for correctable impairments, or C-sections. Further estimates suggest that 2 million women and girls worldwide are living with an untreated obstetric fistula, which causes chronic incontinence as a result of prolonged obstructed labor. These are big numbers that trigger a very common reaction in many of us: how on earth could I do anything about that?

It’s easy to get lost in the big picture, and to feel suffocated by staggering statistics. For me, traveling to Tanzania to visit Kupona Foundation’s sister organization, CCBRT, is the greatest remedy. These trips restore my perspective and root the big statistics into something tangible. These trips remind me of the power of the individual.

Patients in the fistula ward at CCBRT Disability Hospital. (Photo credit: Sala Lewis, 2016)

Patients in the fistula ward at CCBRT Disability Hospital. (Photo credit: Sala Lewis, 2016)

On my most recent trip, I met Jane*, a 15-year-old girl who developed obstetric fistula when she was 14. Jane was sexually assaulted by a man in her village, and was then forced to leave school and marry him. Not long after, she became pregnant. When the time came to deliver, her husband refused to take her to the hospital. Jane was in labor for days until her aunt intervened and sought medical attention. Jane’s baby boy did not survive, and she was left with an obstetric fistula: leaking urine uncontrollably due to the damage caused by the prolonged labor. When he realized Jane was leaking, her husband ended the marriage and sent her back to her parents.

Before the age of 16, Jane has lost a child and has been forced to get married. She has scars on her arms from her husband’s violent outbursts. She has missed out on years of education. She has been abandoned by friends due to the stigma of obstetric fistula. Jane is so young, and yet has experienced more trauma than anyone should have to face in a lifetime.

There are clearly many complex issues at play here. Jane was happy in school and wanted to continue her studies before she was forced to leave. Now, years later, her family cannot afford to send her back. The first steps to protect young girls like Jane from marriage in Tanzania have been taken, with a Constitutional Court ruling in July this year banning marriage to anyone under the age of 18. Attitudes and cultural practices that have been entrenched in communities for generations will take much longer to change. However, the fact that Jane is with us, receiving treatment, counseling and eventually sexual and reproductive health education gives me hope that the course of her future is changing.

For me, Jane’s story is a victory for the power of the individual. Jane’s aunt found the strength to protect Jane and get her the help she needed. A volunteer ambassador referred Jane to CCBRT for fistula treatment, and went out of her way to give Jane something to eat on the journey. A fellow fistula patient helped Jane find her way around the hospital when she arrived, and made her feel safe. A surgeon has repaired her fistula, a counselor is supporting her through her recovery, and a donor made all of this possible. Each individual made a big difference in Jane’s life.

Having access to health care can have a tremendous impact on a woman’s life that extends beyond just health care. Learn more about how the Kupona Foundation does that here: kuponafoundation.org

*Name has been changed.

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A communications and development specialist, Alexandra Cairns has spent the last five years working with organizations in the UK, USA and Tanzania to shine a spotlight on the health challenges facing our global community, and to enable innovative, context-driven solutions that can change the status quo. Alexandra is currently working with Kupona Foundation leadership to mobilize support for the sustainable growth of life-changing disability and maternal and newborn healthcare programs in Tanzania.
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