The vision to eradicate the suffering of young girls and women who are left incontinent as a result of fistula in Nigeria gained some momentum recently when Stephanie Okereke Linus, a UNFPA Ambassador for Maternal Health in West and Central Africa and a very vocal advocate for girls and women’s rights, took her campaign to the nooks and crannies of Sokoto state in Northern Nigeria.
This campaign was particularly important as it not only took place in a region with the highest prevalence rate of fistula, but also included meetings with traditional rulers, religious leaders, policy makers, women leaders and other stakeholders who are tasked with creating policies and encouraging lifestyles that directly affect their communities.
To deliver her advocacy message even better, the delectable mom-of-one, 36, screened her award-winning movie, Dry, a masterpiece that connects the dots between underage marriage, poor maternal health and fistula. The movie which has now been translated into Hausa appealed to the local audience.
The awareness campaign also included visits to fistula hospitals where she had discussions with various doctors, nurses, fistula patients and health workers.
Obstetric fistula is a preventable condition which is prevalent in Nigeria and most poor resource countries of the world. An estimated 50,000- 100,000 new cases occur annually in Nigeria, hence it is a major public health problem.
The UNFPA has been at the forefront in tackling this issue, spearheading several outreach programs and putting its full weight behind campaigns such as this. The organization is also credited with ensuring the message of the movie gets to every relevant community.
For Mrs. Linus, Dry has taken on a life of its own and continues to take her around the world. The education and awareness it delivers to everyone who watches it inspires her to do more.
“Dry is more than just a movie. It is a movement, and the plight of the girl child is a cause I must continue fighting for. I’m not slowing down anytime soon.”
Obstetric fistula is one of the most serious and tragic childbirth injuries. A hole between the birth canal and bladder and/or rectum, it is caused by prolonged, obstructed labour without access to timely, high-quality medical treatment.
It leaves women leaking urine, faeces or both. Women who experience obstetric fistula suffer constant incontinence, shame, social segregation, depression, chronic health problems and deepening poverty. It is estimated that more than 2 million young women live with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in Africa, Asia, the Arab States region, and Latin America and the Caribbean are estimated to be living with fistula, with new cases developing every year.
Yet fistula is almost entirely preventable. Its persistence is a sign of global inequality and an indication that health and social systems are failing to protect the health and human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable women and girls.
As the leader of Campaign to End Fistula, UNFPA provides strategic vision, technical guidance and support, medical supplies, training and capacity building, as well as funds for fistula prevention, treatment and social reintegration programmes. UNFPA also strengthens sexual and reproductive health care and emergency obstetric services to prevent fistula from occurring in the first place.
Obstetric fistula can largely be avoided by:
- delaying the age of first pregnancy;
- the cessation of harmful traditional practices; and
- timely access to obstetric care.
In conclusion, Prevention is the key to ending fistula. Ensuring skilled birth care at all births and providing timely and high quality emergency obstetric care for all women who develop complications during delivery would make fistula as rare in developing countries as it is in the industrialized world.
Additionally, providing family planning to those who want it could significantly reduce maternal disability and death.
The underlying factors that contribute to women’s and girls’ marginalization – including lack of access to quality health services and education, persistent poverty, gender and socioeconomic inequality, child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, and failure to protect human rights and empower women and girls – must also be addressed.