The theme of this year’s International Day to End Obstetric Fistula (marked tomorrow), “Tracking Fistula –Transforming Lives,” reflects an important step forward in eradicating this preventable condition, which affects an estimated two million women and girls in developing countries.
Obstetric fistula highlights persistent global inequalities in access to healthcare and basic human rights. Most women who develop fistula, a hole in the birth canal usually caused by prolonged, obstructed labour, remain untreated, and the condition can easily recur in women and girls whose fistula has been surgically treated but who receive little or no medical follow-up and then become pregnant again.
To treat fistula and provide women with follow-up medical care, we need to know more about how many women and girls are in need of services and also where they live.
In most instances, stigma forces women living with the condition to remain isolated. By systematically registering and tracking each woman and girl who has or had an obstetric fistula, we can make enormous strides in improving their well-being.
Eliminating the health crisis of obstetric fistula requires scaling up countries’ capacities to provide access to reproductive health services.
Tracking and treating all fistula cases is crucial, but it is also necessary for countries to take steps to prevent fistulas by addressing underlying medical and socio-economic causes, eliminating gender-based social and economic inequities, preventing child marriage and early childbearing and promoting education, especially for girls.
To address the neglected health and human rights violation of obstetric fistula, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), together with partners around the world, launched the global Campaign to End Fistula a decade ago. With support from UNFPA, 47,000 women and girls have undergone fistula repair surgery but much remains to be done.
The time has come to put an end to obstetric fistula. We have the resources and know-how. What we need now is the political will to elevate the status of women and girls so that fistula may never again undermine a person’s health, well-being, dignity.
Dr Osotimehin is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA.