Collaborations in Public Health: International Day to End Obstetric Fistula

May 23 is the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, inaugurated by the United Nations in 2013. This day promotes awareness of obstetric fistula, a preventable condition that disproportionately affects women and girls in developing countries. An obstetric fistula is a hole in the birth canal that is caused by prolonged labor with no medical intervention. In addition to the excruciating pain of the injury itself, women suffering from this condition are left incontinent and often experience shame and isolation from their families and communities due to the social stigma surrounding their inability to control urination and bowel movements. In 2003, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched the Campaign to End Fistula, an initiative aimed to increase public action towards treatment and prevention.

Several members of the Hilton Prize Coalition have dedicated programs to eradicate obstetric fistula, and collaboration is a key element in their designs. One such organization is Tostan. Working in six countries in Western Africa, Tostan was awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2007. Tostan’s work focuses on the empowerment of women and girls, child protection and political and economic development. Their community engagement model operates as non-formal education that facilitates community-led development and social progress initiatives.

The organization maintains partnerships alongside local communities, religious leaders and health specialists in the region, having engaged in projects with The Fistula Foundation to provide medical care, including surgery and emotional support to women suffering from obstetric fistula in rural communities. Within the Coalition, Tostan collaborated alongside Hilton Prize Coalition members Amref and Handicap International in Senegal in 2014. The three organizations implemented the Zero Fistula Project, a holistic approach to effectively tackle the issue of obstetric fistula that involved collaboration between hospitals, governmental agencies, and other NGOs in the region. Through this partnership, Tostan reported, more than 600 women were healed and were able to take back their lives.

In Fall 2016, a Hilton Prize Coalition Collaborative Fellow will work alongside Tostan and Coalition member Operation Smile in Senegal for three months, focusing on social reintegration programs for women who have suffered from obstetric fistula. The Fellow will also participate in trainings to replicate this model for Operation Smile’s programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Collaborations in public health projects are vital to the development and humanitarian sectors. Obstetric fistula is a cross-cutting issue that intersects health care and early and child marriage, among others. The collaborative work of these Hilton Prize Coalition organizations to provide treatment and education is raising awareness of the issue at a local level, which will in turn eradicate the condition on a larger scale.

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(Participants of the 2014 UNFPA Zero Fistula Project; Photo Credit Mathilde Demassiet)

Read Tostan’s latest blog post, “Nothing to Hide: Aissatou Mane’s Path to Fistula Recovery”

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