A 14-year-old South Sudanese girl who could not control her urine or bowel movements for two years is lying on a bed at the Lutheran Medical Center in Juba, recovering from an operation to repair a fistula - a medical condition in which a hole develops in the birth canal that is caused by prolonged obstructed labor.
The girl, who VOA is not identifying for privacy reasons, said a doctor friend called her last month from Juba when she was in Rumbek to inform her about a two-week camp being run by the Barbara May Foundation, an Australian organization that helps women suffering from fistula in the South Sudanese capital.
The girl told South Sudan in Focus that in 2019 an old man found her by the roadside, kidnapped her, and forced her into marriage. She said she later became pregnant and developed fistula while delivering her first-born child as a child herself.
"I delivered a baby at home in the village. It’s not a town where I could be taken to the hospital. I delivered alone. There was a woman who was helping me so that the baby could come in her hands, but she put her hands in and it cut the urinary tube and urine started flowing by itself. The relatives of my husband said they don’t want me, that I am smelling, so I went to my father’s home,” said the girl.
Australian surgeon Dr. Andrew Browning, who started the foundation and conducted the operations, said he and his team have operated on more than 100 women and girls in three different camps in South Sudan.
“About 30 ladies per camp and [in] this camp, we have 34 ladies to operate on so it’s now about 120 ladies we have treated in South Sudan but that’s just a small part of the problem; there are many thousands of women in South Sudan with this problem, so we need to train more doctors how to do this operation,” Browning told South Sudan in Focus.
The obstetrician and gynecologist became involved with helping women suffering from fistula 17 years ago after visiting his aunt Valerie Browning in rural Ethiopia, who assisted women with terrible childbirth injuries.
Dr. Browning trained a few South Sudanese surgeons in Ethiopia. He said those surgeons could now be working in Juba, Wau and Aweil, but far more doctors are needed to perform fistula operations.
“There are some people doing it but not enough, and the patients that come here are usually patients who have been operated on in other places and they failed,” Browning said. “We pray they succeeded this time,” he added.
People believe all kinds of misconceptions about fistula, says Browning.
“Some people say it’s a bad spirit, or a curse or maybe the woman was unfaithful in her marriage, but that’s not true. It’s just that the baby was too big for the mother to deliver and that’s how she got stuck, so she was stuck in labor for five days, it’s not her fault, it’s an awful condition to live with, she is leaking all the time, she is very ashamed,” Browning said.
Dr. John Sebit, medical director at the Lutheran Medical Center, where the operations have been conducted, said the center started the project to support mothers who are often rejected by their loved ones due to their condition.
“This camp we started in 2018 after realizing there are so many mothers outside living with fistula or obstetric fistula and again the specialists who do these surgeries are not so common, there are so few,” Sebit told South Sudan in Focus.
The Lutheran Medical Center helps identify women and girls suffering from fistula and transports them “to where they can be operated on,” he said.
Obstetric fistula “will continue in South Sudan until mothers start delivering from hospitals” so that if a baby becomes stuck, doctors can carry out a caesarean section, said Browning.