June 20, 2004

A Woman of Mercy

When people first learn about obstetric fistula, their reaction is often to reject hearing more. If you are in the company of Liz Burns RSM, a sister of Mercy from St. Louis who has spent many years advocating and acting on behalf of poor women and girls in Ghana, you have no option but to listen and commit!

Obstetric fistula is the most devastating of all pregnancy-related disabilities and affects an estimated 50,000-100,000 women per year. It usually occurs when a young, poor women has an obstructed labour and cannot get a Caesarean section when needed. The obstruction can occur because the woman’s pelvis is too small, the baby’s hand is too big, or the baby is badly positioned. The woman can be in labour for five days or more without medical help. The baby usually dies. If the mother survives, she is left with extensive tissue damage to her birth canal that renders her incontinent.

The results are life shattering. The woman is unable to stay dry and the smell of urine or faeces is constant and humiliating. Nerve damage to her legs can also make it difficult to walk. Rather than being comforted by the loss of her child, she is often rejected by her husband, shunned by her community and blamed for her condition. Women who remain untreated face a life of shame and isolation, but may also face a slow, premature death from infection and kidney failure. While some women receive help from their families, others are forced to beg or turn to sex work for a living.

Sub- Saharan Africa is a region devastated by AIDS, malaria, famine, endemic poverty and years of political instability. This backdrop presents numerous challenges to the quality of healthcare. Many public hospitals are located in crumbling facilities and chronic shortages of funding, staff, equipment and surgical supplies. The profiles of the young women living with fistulas in sub- Saharan Africa are aching similar. They are usually aged between 13-20 years old, illiterate, poor. Many have been abandoned by their husbands, forced out of their homes, ostracized by family and friends and even distained by health workers.

Into this tragic scene steps Mercy Woman, Sister Liz Burns, a Fulbright scholar who is focused and passionate about making a difference. At a meeting held recently at the United Nations between Kate Ramsey the focal point person for Africa from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Sister Liz, this sprightly eighty year old outlined her plans…

" I am in the process of fundraising to build a 42 bed hospital with two theaters which will be able to perform between 1000-1200 operations per year. Attached will be a hostel where the women will go after treatment to learn a craft to make a living – chicken rearing/sewing/batik. It will be open to all irrespective of religion or tribe.

At present I have an ambulance and some bicycles which are used to pick up the sick women, many of whom live in remote villages."

Liz also outlined the need for education to empower women. Social and cultural barriers often prevent a woman from seeking medical help. In many places women need permission from their husband or male relatives to see a doctor. Cultural beliefs around the causes of obstructed labour – such as infidelity or being cursed further limit a woman’s ability to get treatment. Legal and social change is needed to improve the status of women and provide girls with access to proper nutrition, health care and education. Men’s involvement is crucial to achieve this change to give young women other options besides childbearing.

As I listened to the exchange, I could not help but imagine that Catherine Mc Auley herself was in the meeting room – her spirit certainly was!

As a result of the meeting held at UNFPA with Liz, an on-site visit has been arranged and hopefully a strategy can be worked so that UNFPA and Liz can work effectively together to make her dream come true!

"My God, look with compassion and mercy on those who are poor, and grant us the grace to do all that we can for their relief and comfort.” Catherine Mc Auley

Deirdre Mullan RSM
Mercy Global Concern

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