As the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula approaches Tuesday, scores of women who have been treated for the medical condition are encouraging their peers in northern Cameroon to get help.
Many sufferers of obstetric fistula — characterized by urinary and fecal incontinence — believe the disease is a curse for wrongdoing. Now former patients and aid groups are telling families fistula can be treated.
The network of women who have been successfully operated on for obstetric fistula in Cameroon's northern region say they are educating communities that it is a disease that can be treated.
Hospital workers say obstetric fistula is a hole between the birth canal and bladder or rectum, caused by prolonged, obstructed labor without access to timely, high-quality medical treatment. The disease leaves women and girls leaking urine, feces or both, and often leads to chronic medical problems, depression, social isolation and deepening poverty, medical staff members say.
Catherine Debong, 31, is the spokesperson for Women in Maroua, a group of women who have been operated on for obstetric fistula. Maroua is a town in Cameroon's far north that shares a border with Chad and Nigeria.
Debong said she is urging parents, husbands, clerics, community leaders and traditional rulers to educate others that obstetric fistula is not a curse or divine punishment for wrongdoing. She said she wants communities to encourage women who have gone into hiding due to the disease to seek treatment.
Debong said a Roman Catholic priest took her to the hospital in 2012 after she had lived with fistula for six years. She is now committed to saving the lives of other women with fistula whom she said are dying without medical help.
Cameroon's Ministry of Public Health says between 350 and 1,500 new cases of fistula are reported each year. Seventy-five percent of the cases are reported on Cameroon's northern region, where more than 80% of civilians seek help from African traditional healers and seldom visit hospitals.
Cameroon reports that 60% of patients seeking help in hospitals have lived with obstetric fistula for more than 5 years. Eighty percent of patients have no formal education and 90% were teenagers when they had their first baby.
Many sufferers are accused of witchcraft and abandoned by their relatives.
The Cameron government is trying to end the stigma and discrimination attached to the condition through education programs.
Boyo Maurine is with the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services program, a nonprofit group that works with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The group educates communities about obstetric fistula and encourages women to seek treatment.
"Generally, the individuals perceive that people will not want to associate with them because of the odor that comes from them and from the embarrassment that will come from constantly being wet without any form of control," Boyo said. "They already feel that they do not belong to society, and this leaves them sometimes with some negative emotions like sadness, depression, anger and aggression, which is as a result of this condition."
In 2020, the U.N. launched a global commitment to fistula prevention and treatment, including surgical repair and social reintegration. The campaign hopes to end fistula by 2030, while transforming the lives of thousands of women and girls.
The International Day to End Obstetric Fistula draws attention to the condition, which affects tens of thousands of women globally.