This article is part of a series by RH Reality Check with contributions from EngenderHealth, Guttmacher Institute, Human Rights Watch, the International Women’s Health Coalition, the Fistula Foundation, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Campaign to End Fistula.
My name is Sarah Omega and I am a fistula survivor from Kenya. My parents passed away when I was young, leaving behind my eight siblings and me. The loss caused us enormous emotional pain and left us struggling in deep poverty.
At a young age, I dropped out of school so that I could work to help support my family. However, due to the common practice of female child marriage in Kenya, I was not safe. After two men — one of whom was my former primary school teacher — asked relatives for my hand in marriage, I ran away from home to join my elder sister and escape a forced marriage.
Unfortunately, running away was just like jumping out of the frying pan into a fire. While I was in hiding, a religious leader raped me. I became pregnant as a result of the rape. I was only 19 years old.
When it was time for me to deliver my child, I was in labor for more than 20 hours before I was able to reach a health facility. Once there, I was left laboring alone for an additional 18 hours before a gynecologist intervened. By this time, I had already lost my baby.
The health facility lacked the most basic supplies so I was referred to another health facility where I delivered, through a Cesarean section, a 4.8kg stillborn baby boy. Three days later, I realized that I was leaking urine uncontrollably. After being hospitalized for two months, I was told that the only way I could be treated was if a specialist came from abroad. I was devastated and hopeless.
The rape, the loss of my baby, and the constant leaking of urine, which caused a foul smell and painful sores, felt to me like I was being punished for existing, for being a woman.
Back at home, life was unbearable. For 12 years, I had no control over my own body. Every night, my bed got wet from urine and my pillow got wet from the tears due to the pain in my genitals. While other young people welcomed every new day with a smile, I struggled each morning, facing humiliation, rejection, and pain.
Severe depression finally led me to a psychiatric ward in April 2007. While there, I learned that there were fistula surgeries taking place in the same facility. After 12 long years of suffering, a successful repair was finally done in May 2007. The surgery made me feel like a woman again.
Every year, 100,000 women with obstructed labor suffer from obstetric fistula. I ask: Why should another woman continue to suffer as I suffered when the world has both the ability and the resources to end such heartache and pain?
I dedicate my life to help other fistula survivors. In Kenya, it is estimated that there are 3,000 new fistula cases every year, however only seven percent of these women receive treatment. By one estimate, this leaves 30,000 women living with fistula in my country alone. [Estimates on the incidence of obstetric fistula in Kenya vary from 30,000 to 300,000 existing cases. The wide variance in the number of cases estimated underscores the urgent need for better data collection on this problem as one step toward eliminating fistula.]
I have been to various communities to gather women who are suffering in silence, and I refer them to health facilities where they can access treatment.
Obstetric fistula is treatable and it is preventable. I believe that if we all work together we will be able to prevent the condition and heal those already living with it. Together we can end maternal mortality and morbidities like obstetric fistula.
This series is being published in conjunction with renewed efforts by advocates and the public health community to increase U.S. international support for efforts to address obstetric fistula, a wholly preventable but debilitating condition caused most immediately by obstructed labor and too early or too frequent childbearing, but generally rooted in lack of access to health care and discrimination against women. Fistula affects the lives of individual women, their children and families, and also grossly undermines women’s economic productivity and participation in society. The global public health community has called for comprehensive strategies both to prevent new cases and treat existing cases of fistula. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) will soon introduce legislation intended to support a comprehensive U.S. approach to fistula as part of a broader commitment to reducing maternal mortality and morbidity worldwide.