By: Vincenzina Santoro
Ed: Lizi Jones
Obstetric fistula is a malady that is virtually unknown in the developed world, but which destroys the human existence of many women in very poor countries around the world. It is a condition that afflicts mainly very young women who become pregnant and have had poor pre-and post-partum care – or none at all – when facing a difficult delivery. Most victims are young girls who are raped or forced into unwanted marriages even as pre-teenagers whose premature bodies are not fully capable of childbearing.
Under such conditions, the damage to the female’s body leaves the victim incontinent for life. Belabored birth, sometimes lasting days, destroys many of the body’s tissues so that a woman loses control of her bodily functions and becomes incapable of leading a normal life. In these extreme circumstances the baby is usually born dead, adding to the unspeakable suffering of the debilitated mother. Victims suffer abandonment, isolation and shame.
In Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in Africa where there are an estimated 100,000 fistula cases per year, a single doctor has been making a significant difference in restoring the lives of thousands of afflicted women for nearly four decades. Father Aldo Marchesini, a Dahonian priest originally from Bologna, Italy is a surgeon who has specialized in treating this dreadful condition in Mozambique.
Fr Marchesini went to Mozambique in 1975 as a young missionary and soon began to focus on treating obstetric fistula in rural communities. He began operating the year he arrived in a small hospital in the Zambizia province near the central coastal area of the country, and has since conducted an estimated 15,000 operations, or about 10 each week. Fr Marchesini persisted in Mozambique despite limited resources and a bloody civil war that did not end until 1992. Today, the hospital has expanded and its capacities go well beyond fistula-related operations.
For many years Fr Marchesini was the only physician operating on fistula patients in all of Mozambique. Today all the fistula-related medical personnel in the country have been trained by the dedicated priest, whose vast experience perfected the technique that requires patience and precision. He is widely respected in the country for his adherence to meticulous standards for treating a condition that most doctors shun as being non-remunerative.
Obstetric fistula is a highly preventable malady that poor countries could eradicate almost entirely through better education. It is a complex issue, as its solution lies not merely in expanding contraceptive use, but also in educating communities in sexual health, consensual sexual practice, and the dangers of pregnancy for young girls. Doing so has the ability to change the elements of Mozambique’s attitudes, behaviors, and traditions that currently result in such high rates of the devastating condition, which would effectively transform thousands of women’s lives for the better.
*Vincenzina Santoro is a visiting contributing author. She is an international economist, representing the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.
UN Photo: Fred Noy