Addis Ababa—ONE of the worst things that can happen to a woman or girl around the world is a fistula, an internal injury caused by childbirth (or occasionally by rape) that leaves her incontinent, humiliated and sometimes stinking.
Victims are the lepers of the 21st century, and although the condition is almost entirely preventable, it is suffered by hundreds of thousands of women worldwide.
The condition is invisible because it distastefully involves sex, odor and private body parts, and because victims tend to live in impoverished countries and already have three strikes against them: They’re poor, rural and female, and thus voiceless and marginalized.
They’re the same group that is routinely denied education, denied the right to own property, denied jobs and denied any recourse after being battered, raped or married against their will — and that’s why gender equity worldwide should be a top item on the social justice agenda.
And also on the presidential agenda. America’s presidential race has prompted some discussion of what “women’s rights” mean in 2016. But that discussion has focused inward on America when the most horrific challenges are endured by women and girls abroad — like Marima, who endured a fistula here in Ethiopia.
Marima was a high school student who planned to become a teacher when she fell in love and married another student. She didn’t want to get pregnant but had never heard of contraception, so soon her belly was swelling.
In much of the world, the most dangerous thing a woman can do is become pregnant. Marima tried to deliver at home, and after days of obstructed labor, the fetus was dead and she was left with an obstetric fistula.
A fistula is a hole between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum. Marima had both, leaving her steadily leaking urine and feces through her vagina. In addition, as is common, she had nerve damage called foot drop, so she couldn’t walk.
Marima’s husband abandoned her and took another wife. Marima lay on a piece of plastic on the floor of her brother’s house, unable to move, utterly forlorn and alone, as family members scolded her for the constant stink.