Eighty fistula survivors get a new lease on life

13 December 2017
Eighty fistula survivors hold up their certificates in Bo District. ©UNFPA Sierra Leone/2017/ Lolade Durotoye

BO, Sierra Leone, 7 December 2017 – Eighty women and girls between the ages of 15-52 stood in solidarity and with pride to receive their certificates as members of Haikal’s fifth graduating class on livelihood skills training for fistula survivors. The occasion marked the end of a dark and harrowing journey through one of the most debilitating pregnancy related disabilities that affects young girls and women who do not have access to quality maternal health services. For many of the new graduates, fistula represented more than a medical issue and their graduation ceremony illustrated them getting a new lease on life.

In a powerful speech that moved many to tears, Yaewah Lahai, a 15-year-old fistula survivor from Kailahun District, spoke about the systematic disadvantages that lead women and girls like her to contend with the physical devastation of obstetric fistula. Having fully recovered, Yaewah spoke with unabashed confidence about how she was forced to marry a 65-year-old man as his fourth wife because her family could not afford the cost of her school fees; around two hundred thousand Leones (US30). Yaewah became pregnant shortly after her marriage.  Due the lack of skilled birth attendants in her community, Yaewah had no one to help her when she went into labour which became an agonizing process that lasted three days. Ultimately Yaewah lost her baby during the process and because her pelvic tissues had been heavily compressed for such a long period of time, she also developed obstetric fistula which left her body unable to withhold urine and fecal matter. Similar to many women and girls in her position, Yaewah was abandoned by her husband, relatives, friends and community and was forced into living in isolation. However, with the support of UNFPA, the United Nations reproductive health and rights agency, Yaewah’s story slowly turned from one of shame and heartbreak to one of recovery and triumph. Her confidence exuded as she recalled the strength she gained through her treatment, therapy, rehabilitation and training courses.

UNFPA Sierra Leone’s obstetric fistula programme focuses on the key interventions of prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration of patients. Currently, UNFPA supports two non-governmental organisations that provide fistula services in the country, (Aberdeen Women’s Centre and Haikal). With the understanding that there are many social risk factors that lead to obstetric fistula, UNFPA’s country representative, Dr. Kim Dickson, delivered the graduation’s keynote address which focused on preventing new cases by putting an end to early child marriage and the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation. In her speech, Dr. Dickson stated, “All women should have the right choose when they want to have a child, and how many children they want to have. A young girl’s body is not fully matured and it’s not equipped to carry a pregnancy which is what causes girls to develop fistula in the first place.”

Whilst Yaewah’s story was truly remarkable, the other 79 Haikal’s graduates had equally dynamic stories that were similarly compelling. The Executive Director of Haikal, Haja Hawa Turay, consistently referred to her new graduates as ‘champions’ as their road to recovery required lion-hearted determination.  In addition to bearing the physical challenge of surgery, the women and girls had to undergo psychosocial counselling to mitigate compounded tragedies that they had experienced as well as the years of seclusion and isolation. Before they became known as ‘champions’, the graduates also had to complete classes in either soap making, tailoring, Gara tie and die, agriculture or weaving, all of which integrated curricula in literacy and numeracy, basic small business skills and savings scheme/management.

Like any graduation ceremony, the highlight of the event was the awarding of certificates but for Haikal graduates, there was the added encouragement of getting seed money. As part of Haikal’s reintegration strategy which ensures that the fistula survivors are able to return to their communities as productive citizens, each graduate received 1 million Leones to embark on livelihood/ income generating work in their respective communities.