Trigger warning: child loss/still birth
Marie Conteh — from Sierra Leone — was only 14 years old when she was forced into marriage by her mother after living her life in extreme poverty. Within a few months after she was wed, she found herself pregnant at the tender age of fifteen. And like so many others in Africa, she was offered no prenatal care. When the young girl went into labor, her husband opted not to send her to a medical facility but had a few traditional birth attendants help her deliver the baby instead. After three to four hours of intense and prolonged labor pains, Conteh gave birth to a stillborn baby girl.
Following her birth, Conteh said the experience left her “completely paralyzed,” and she also began leaking urine. Her community deemed this paralysis and leaking of urine an attribute to sorcery and ultimately ostracized the young girl into a traded life as a witch.
But as it turns out, Conteh was one among two million women and girls in Africa today who suffer from the childbirth injury known as obstetric fistula.
Obstetric fistula occurs when a labor has become obstructed and emergency care is unavailable. Without proper medical attention, this childbirth complication causes tissue to die due to loss of blood circulation. It leaves large gaps between the birth canal and bladder or rectum, which ultimately causes urinary and fecal incontinence.
Perhaps the most horrifying part? Obstetric fistula is preventable, and the high number of cases seen are because of the lack of medical care as well as properly trained midwives in developing countries today.
“Women and girls are often in labor for days and if they manage to get to a hospital, there may not be a doctor to perform a C-section or they may not have the money to pay for one,” Lois Boyle, Director of Operations and Communications for Freedom From Fistula — a non-profit organization aiming to eradicate obstetric fistula — tells Scary Mommy.
When obstetric fistula occurs and medical attention isn’t obtained in a timely manner, stillbirth is almost always the inevitable outcome of the baby and it’s likely the mother will suffer for the rest of her life unless revision surgery is somehow provided. Without proper access to hygiene products, such as pads, soap and clean water, these women and girls are left re-using rags as a means to absorb their leaking urine and sometimes feces.
“Their lives are truly miserable,” Boyle quoted with emphasis. “The smell is horrific so no one wants to touch you, speak to you, or hug you.”
Boyle says sometimes these girls are believed to be cursed. They live in isolation, often starving from living off scraps, and they don’t drink properly due to the fear of smelling poorly from an increase in leaking urine.
Oftentimes, women and girls are withdrawn when they are brought into the clinic. Their condition has made them feel like they’ve brought shame upon their family. Freedom From Fistula offers patients a fresh change of clothes, incontinence napkins to help manage symptoms before the procedure, as well as guidance to meet their emotional needs from the horrors they’ve faced because of this condition. Boyle says that the first step toward healing is reassuring these women that obstetric fistula is not their fault, they have not been cursed, and they are not alone.
“Their emotional healing is just as important as the physical healing,” Boyle adds. “Usually, the first time they have ever met another woman suffering with fistula is when they come to a Freedom From Fistula clinic, and their transformation begins because they are not alone.”
The good news? Obstetric fistula is curable in 85% of cases and through screening teams, radio advertisements, patient ambassadors, and other advocacy partners, Freedom From Fistula is able to offer repair surgeries and medical care to roughly 1,000 patients every year.
These women and girls aren’t just a statistic in some far-off land; they are people as real as you and I. Obstetric fistula has been all but eradicated in developed countries today, and this proves that these types of childbirth injuries can be all but eradicated with proper medical treatment today.
Patients as old as 90 (having suffered with incontinence for the better part of all their years) and girls as young as 12 have walked through the doors of the Freedom From Fistula clinics feeling awful about themselves with a plummeted self-esteem, but they leave “healed, empowered and renewed.”
Conteh has since been given the gift of healing with a cost-free fistula-repair surgery from Freedom From Fistula. She regained her mobility to walk with no help and is continuing to physically and emotionally improve from the horrors she faced every single day.
“What really impresses me most is the medical attention and care they offer us at every minute and hour,” Conteh states. “Staying here makes me feel like home.”