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A Pregnant Pause: What is the link between a 91 year old Australian, a Hospital by the River, and 43,000 Ethiopian women?

May 23, 2015


What is the link between a 91 year old Australian, a Hospital by the River, and 43,000 Ethiopian women?

Obstetric Fistula. And today is International Day to End Obstetric Fistula.

What’s a fistula and why is there an international day to end it?

Obstetric fistula is a devastating injury of childbirth. In laywoman’s terms it is a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder. It is caused by prolonged obstructed labour that leaves women incontinent of urine/feces and subsequently often alone and stigmatized (More Information). It affects approximately 2 million women and girls around the world, with 50,000-100,000 new cases per year, and like many preventable and treatable injuries, it disproportionately affects women in poverty-stricken areas (UN Stats).

And why the day? Well as noted above, fistula is largely preventable and treatable, and with the will and resources this devastation can be spared.

But don’t take my word for it, take Ban Ki Moon’s:

We have a moral obligation, as a global community, to complete the unfinished agenda of eradicating fistula. Together, let us keep our promises to support universal human rights and ensure the health and dignity of women and girls everywhere. (Secretary General’s Message for 2015, 23 May)

Like many health issues, this is also a human rights issue; it (grossly) disproportionately affects poor and marginalized women. It affects their right to health and has its roots in social, economic, and gender inequalities, and lack of access to quality health care (Overview of the Right to Health)

Hospital by the River

Hospital by the River

And the Australian and Ethiopian connection?

This is a post I had hoped to write years ago, during my time in Ethiopia. It was then that I first heard of this amazing Australian woman, Dr. Catherine Hamlin, who arrived in Ethiopia in 1959, and along with her husband Dr. Reginald Hamlin, founded Hamlin Fistula Ethiopa, fistula hospitals, clinics and even a midwifery college in Ethiopia, and in the process treated more than 43,000 Ethiopian women affected by fistula.

Photo of Dr. Hamlin with Ethiopian women, courtesy of google images.

Photo of Dr. Hamlin with Ethiopian women, courtesy of google images.

Here in Geneva yesterday, I attended an event to mark International Day to End Obstetric Fistula and had the privilege of hearing the now-91-year-old doctor describe her work and in the process inspire all in attendance.

Earlier this week, while flipping through TV channels I stopped on the movie The Iron Lady, just in time to hear a young Margaret Thatcher say:

One’s life must matter, Dennis. Beyond all the cooking and the cleaning and the children. One’s life must mean more than that. I cannot die washing up a teacup!

Young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, photo courtesy of google images.

Young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, photo courtesy of google images.

And as different as these two women are, hearing Dr. Hamlin speak brought me back to that quote, thinking how much this one woman has done in her lifetime, how much MORE she has brought to the world.

A Pregnant pause:

As I said above, this is a post I would have liked to write during my time in Ethiopia ( See Ethiopia Posts ). I had hoped to visit the famous Hospital by the River (the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital established by the Hamlins in 1974) but never made it there. But as much as I would have loved to visit the hospital and as big as an impact it surely would have had on me then, I cannot help but think that perhaps it is even more pertinent now, as I sat listening to Dr. Hamlin yesterday and rubbing my belly, pregnant with my first child, these stories affected me now in a way that they likely never could have 3 years ago. My worries about care and delivery for myself here in Switzerland seemed utterly manageable compared to those of so many women all over the world. I was overcome with a feeling of profound gratitude as I approach the end of my pregnancy and a renewed and a feeling of being more resolute than ever to carry on with human rights work and hopefully along the way, in young Margaret’s words, do more in some way or another.

*For more information check out:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2015 5:59 am

    I’m been involved with HFE for years and Dr Hamlin is considered something of a miracle in Ethiopia – given her remarkable age and the fact that she still does rounds most days of the week.

    Thanks for the awareness!

  2. May 29, 2015 5:17 pm

    Wishing you the best with your delivery, and of course your future irreplaceable memories with your child! Didn’t know about this risk or Dr. Hemlin’s work! As a woman, I knew I never wanted to carry a child even though I love kids, so remain ignorant of many things related to pregnancy. Thank you for sharing.

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