We Can End Obstetric Fistula in a Generation

At Population Connection, we believe that everyone, regardless of where in the world they live, should be able to access the quality reproductive health services they need to live healthy lives. Today, on International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, we acknowledge the tragic health and social implications of obstetric fistula, and thank organizations working around the world to eliminate it.

Obstetric fistula is one of the most serious injuries that can occur in childbirth. During a long, obstructed labor without quality medical treatment, a hole can form between the birth canal and the rectum and/or bladder. If obstructed labor is not addressed properly (typically with a cesarean section), patients typically give birth to stillborn babies, and they often develop obstetric fistulas, causing them to leak urine, feces, or both indefinitely. People living with obstetric fistula are often falsely blamed for their condition and ostracized from their communities. In addition to experiencing a lifetime of chronic medical issues, they often face isolation and depression and are excluded from economic opportunities.

While obstetric fistula is almost entirely preventable, more than 2 million women are currently living with the condition, and between 50,000 and 100,000 new cases occur each year. Surgery can almost always repair the injury. However, because treatment costs an average of nearly $600, the poorest and most marginalized women around the world who cannot afford care are left to bear the health and emotional consequences of the chronic condition. The lack of universally affordable and accessible treatment signals a failure in global health systems to address maternal health care.

In 2003, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched its Campaign to End Fistula to restore the health and dignity of people affected by the condition, and to put a permanent end to new cases by 2030. UNFPA is working to expand a broad range of quality maternal health care services—including skilled birth attendants, voluntary family planning, and emergency obstetric and newborn care—to prevent fistula from happening in the first place, and to help women who have suffered from fistula to reintegrate into their communities. From training and mentoring doctors in fistula surgery to equipping health care centers with the necessary supplies to perform the surgeries in sterile conditions, UNFPA is working to arm providers with the resources necessary to provide surgery, post-operative care, and rehabilitation support.

With sufficient financial investment in preventive care, a world without obstetric fistula is entirely possible by 2030. The United States should be increasing its investment in crucial maternal health programs, instead of stripping funding to the agencies that provide maternal health services most effectively—namely, UNFPA.

No woman’s dignity and autonomy should be undermined by a preventable childbirth injury. Today, on International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, we call on the Trump administration to restore funding to UNFPA, and to increase international family planning funding to $1.6 billion, in order to help put a permanent end to obstetric fistula around the world.

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