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A Walk To Beautiful - How Obstetric Fistulas Affect Women in Ethiopia

Updated on April 8, 2015

While perusing a local public library's online catalog, I came across a documentary available on DVD called A Walk to Beautiful. This film was a PBS broadcast about issues with healthcare specifically about obstetric fistulas among the impoverished women in Ethiopia. The documentary raises awareness, heightens emotions, and brings back familiar scenes and a few stories of some people I met over the last 5 months I spent teaching at a school and ministering to the community of Debre Zeyit, Ethiopia, Africa.

I was touched and moved by these women's stories, by their hardship, through their beauty among such harsh circumstances. It also makes me more passionate about my own cause and encourages the fight to do what's noble and what's right in speaking out against these hidden third world epidemics. It's more like we see them, unfortunately know they are there, and somehow we want to sweep them under the rug. This cannot happen and it cannot be, but less about my own opinions and more about them, about their own stories. Perhaps in the end, you too will feel the same: angry enough to fight to have something done about it to bring lasting change to these societies.

So what is obstetric fistula? We can't be angry enough to promote change if we do not know what it is we're talking about here.

The World Health Organization tells us obstetric fistulas are holes in the birth canal. It's caused through birthing a child with poor medical treatment and, as you learn in the film should you decide to watch it, while it used to be a worldwide issue it is now a developing country issue. These women with fistulas could not hold their own urine. They were ostracized by their own loved ones, tossed aside to be forgotten, and if you have this issue living in Ethiopia, the women lose their sense of womanhood because to be a woman especially in the rural areas, you are to be a good wife which would also mean to be a good mom, and this definition of "good" cannot come alongside with a condition such as these holes that cause incontinence which are odorous among a land where water for drinking let alone bathing is unstable.

We begin by following the story of Ayehu, a woman living in Gondar, Ethiopia who travels the far distance to Addis Ababa to have corrective surgery in hopes of being cured from her ailment caused by being in labor for a week (yes, one week) as she was unable to birth her child on her own. The baby died as a result and had to be removed by a doctor, if you can even imagine her pain - the pain of losing a child and the pain of physical labor without any medication to alleviate it. She's not the only woman to suffer through days of labor without being able to deliver her baby. Part of the reason why delivery is so difficult is caused by stunting.

Stunted growth happens when proper nutrients are not ingested enabling the body to grow and be healthy. Stunting is an issue in Ethopia as well as other third world countries where food is not adequate. A lot of the times, the pelvis of these women are small and the baby cannot fit but without having proper prenatal care, these women sometimes do not know nor do they really understand what is going on with their bodies. The other issue is money speaks there just as it does in the Western world and if they do not have the money for even the limited treatment of what is available, they are left helpless and can die from conditions that come as a result of childbirth. It can seem very hopeless for these women who become moms by choice or not by choice.

Ayehu tells us about how her family made her move out and they built a house out of mud and straw for her to live in by herself as she could not hold her own urine. This made her very depressed as she was sent into forced isolation by people who loved her. Of her condition she is filmed saying, "This is not life. Death would be better than this."

"I thought about drinking poison but my family told me not to because my soul would burn in hell," she said.

Does your heart ache with mine? Grab your tissues. The reality of these women's lives is unbelievable and hard to let sink in.

Once she arrived at the Fistula Hospital in Addis, she finds out she is not alone. "I am very surprised. I never expected there to be a lot of people like this. Everybody is sick. I thought it was only me."

As several doctors come onto the scene, she is assessed and treated for her incontinence caused by obstetric fistula. After two weeks of being in the hospital and being able to keep a dry bed, she is released and goes back to be reunited with her family.

But the story does not end with Ayehu. Countless other women are affected by this condition and of many ages. 17 year old Wubete's story will break your heart as we find out through her that while the surgery is miraculous, it is not always one-and-done. She came back for her third attempt captured in this documentary. After many attempts that had failed, doctors were willing to try another method of treatment with her after they discover her bladder is too small. Now when she feels the urge to go to the bathroom, she has to pull a device out of her to go and then when she is done, she has to place it back in.

Can you imagine being a 17 year old girl and having to deal with this?

She said in her journey, "I won't go back home without being cured because no one will accept me. My other choice is to kill myself."

You'll have to give the film a watch to see how her story ends, but I will say this: it is truly A Walk to Beautiful.

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