In Ethiopia, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the most dangerous thing a woman can do is to become pregnant. Every year, 22,000 women and girls die during or as a result of childbirth* – one of the highest mortality rates in the world. But an Australian gynecologist, Dr. Catherine Hamlin, has spent her entire professional life bringing this issue to the world’s attention.
On January 24th, Dr. Hamlin celebrated her 90th birthday. She has spent most of her life in Ethiopia working to treat women with fistula. Because of her determination to end the suffering which results from this very shameful but treatable condition, she really is a hero to women in Ethiopia. Her son Richard has said, “Catherine has one son and 35,000 daughters.”
Most women in Ethiopia – 85% – labor and give birth without any doctor or medical professional present. Obstetric fistula occurs when a baby gets stuck in the birth canal and there is no doctor to perform a cesarean section. The baby dies and the woman is left incontinent with urine and sometimes feces trickling through her vagina. Untreated, she is left in complete shame and hopelessness, stigmatized by her family and friends who believe she is cursed. If she is lucky, she is relegated to a separate shelter apart from her family because of her smell. Many women, though, are simply cast out of their village completely.
Dr. Hamlin and her late husband built a hospital in Addis Ababa which has trained several generations of doctors to repair fistulas, proving that it is possible and relatively inexpensive to treat this very common condition for many women in Ethiopia. Several of her former patients now also perform fistula repairs at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital. Dr. Hamlin said at her recent birthday celebration, “We have to eradicate Ethiopia of this awful thing that’s happening to women: suffering, untold suffering, in the countryside. I leave this with you to do in the future, to carry on.”
If you haven’t yet seen it, be sure to watch the documentary about Dr. Hamlin’s lifelong work, A Walk To Beautiful.
I hope you’ll also read Dr. Hamlin’s book The Hospital by the River: A Story of Hope. Her story will open your eyes and heart to so many of Ethiopia’s women.
Dr. Hamlin has been nominated by the Ethiopian government for the Nobel Peace Prize. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she received it? She is most certainly deserving and it would be an incredible way to bring more visibility to this very preventable tragedy happening in Ethiopia.
*World Health Organization statistic