24 January 2011

Women Abroad Take 1: Fatima Moukela

Hello to you all! I’m Julianne and so so happy to be adding posts to this wonderful blog and project. I’ll be writing for the next few months while working at a rehab center for teenage moms in Brazil, and decided that perhaps my best contribution would be to share the stories of phenomenal and inspiring women I have met throughout my work and travels abroad. Sound good? huzzah!

To start off this little series then, I thought that I would zero in on a very appropriate issue for We Are Women: obstetric fistula. I have such a passion for this cause, having written my Masters thesis on the presence of fistula in the West African nation of Niger. To conduct research for the thesis, I spent some months in Niger´s main hospital doing research and working with/befriending a load of fistula patients and doctors. As obstetric fistula is 100% preventable with the presence of emergency obstetric care, the story of every fistula sufferer is filled with needless tragedy, frustration, and sorrow. I saw and heard so many heart-wrenching tales while in Niger, but one of the women I met profoundly touched me above all others. Her name is Fatima Moukela, pictured above.

By now Fatima is 35 years old. She lives in a rural community in western Niger that possesses a staffed (!) health clinic, a true rarity in that country. She frequently attended the clinic for pre-natal visits, and when labor pains began at the delivery of her second child, she went immediately to the clinic to have the child under medical supervision. Now you have to understand: in Niger over 90% of births are conducted with no trained medical personnel at hand. The rates of pre-natal visits for women are dismally low, as they are in many impoverished countries. Fatima therefore showed extraordinary initiative in seeking out medical care when many around her see no point.

It's not too surprising why: although Fatima was at a health facility, the personnel were not equipped for surgical procedures, and as the labor stretched on and on past three days, Fatima's options had run out. In her fourth day of labor, she finally arrived at a medical facility where they could perform a cesarean and her stillborn child could be removed. Yet the brutal effects of the prolonged labor had left their mark: a fistula (hole) had developed between Fatima's vagina and bladder, rendering her completely incontinent for the next two years until she was able to save enough money for the long journey to the capital city's hospital for a surgical repair.

Obstetric fistula should not happen to any woman, period. But what broke my heart in Fatima’s case is that she had taken all the steps in her power to prevent it. She was literate and had seven years of education, she had done her pre-natal visits and sought out medical care at the onset of her labor. Sometimes prolonged and obstructed labors simply happen. It can happen to any woman at anytime in any country. I am certain you know someone yourself who has undergone such a grueling labor and delivery! But in Fatima’s case, without emergency services readily available, this natural event caused her such needless pain and hardship.

So this is where the Campaign to End Fistula comes in. Or OperationOF. Or the Fistula Foundation. Fantastic organizations that are working to train health personnel on the ground to not only treat women like Fatima, but to prevent such cases from ever happening again.

I love this dear woman. She is so beautiful and unbelievably strong. She undercut so many vicious stereotypes of fistula patients and African women as voiceless sufferers. Fatima is eloquent and determined. Capable and intelligent. It was this broken health system that had failed her, and such cruel injustice is truly criminal. I'm thrilled that Allison decided to dedicate this project to helping women like Fatima. In the next months I will share a few more women whose lives and causes have touched me greatly. Women helping women, mothers helping mothers: is there anything more powerful, more beautiful? :)

beijos to you all,

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