“I used to think I was cursed by God and cry day and night. My husband and parents also felt sad about my condition. They thought that there was no treatment for it. They started hiding me from neighbours and friends. I asked my husband to take me to church but he refused…” –Serke, Healing Hands of Joy Safe Motherhood Ambassador
My name is Allison Shigo and I want to tell you about the life of one of my heroes, a Safe Motherhood Ambassador (SMA) named Serke. I am fortunate, having been born and raised in the United States where I have never had to worry about access to education and health care. I have never had reason to worry about child marriage, raising a family and being comfortable in old-age.
In 2007-2008 I co-produced the Emmy-Award winning documentary ‘A Walk to Beautiful’, which followed the plight of Ethiopian women suffering from fistula.
Obstetric Fistula is a devastating injury that occurs during childbirth, often as a result of a difficult or prolonged labour. The condition leaves a hole between the bladder or rectum and vagina causing severe bleeding and life-long incontinence. Most women go on to lose their babies due to the trauma.
Sadly, many of these women go on to face stigma and shame, both enduring the superstitions arising from the death of a newborn, as well as the shame of suffering incontinence. Sufferers are often abandoned by their husbands and isolated from their family and community.
In Ethiopia, there is limited access to qualified midwives and maternal health care, which results in an increase in fistula injuries. An estimated 37,000 rural women are still living lives of isolation because of fistula, with 3,000 expected new cases a year. Simply having a trained midwife can cut instances of fistula dramatically.
My experiences working on this film inspired me to establish Healing Hands of Joy in 2009. After witnessing the injustice of women suffering preventable injuries and being subjected to social stigma, I was desperate to make a difference.
Healing Hands of Joy welcome hundreds of fistula survivors every year to their three training and rehabilitation centres. The organisation helps fill the gap in prevention and social reintegration services for those who have suffered fistula. For these women, it is a special place full of warmth and love.
One of our main projects is in the provision of Safe Motherhood Ambassadors. Women who are trained in safe motherhood practices and basic antenatal and postnatal care. In addition, they are given counselling and training in literacy, numeracy and income-generating so they can become self-sufficient.
My hero, Serke, is an SMA and a survivor of fistula.
Originally from the rural Northwest of Ethiopia, Serke never had an opportunity to attend school and was forced to marry when she was 10 years old. In the following years, Serke became pregnant three times, but sadly only one of her children survived. Her third delivery took place while she was home alone and ended in a life-changing fistula injury and the loss of her baby.
Fortunately for Serke, she was able to receive treatment at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, where her fistula injury was successfully cured. After surgery, she was given the chance to join the Safe Motherhood Ambassador programme at Healing Hands of Joy. Serke was keen to help other women who had suffered the same trauma as her.
I believe there is such potential for former fistula patients to prevent further fistula suffering in their communities by promoting safe delivery practises and expanding the capacity of health extension workers.
For the two weeks that Serke trained to be an SMA, she benefitted from basic business skills training and received micro-loan, so that she could set up a sheep-fattening business, ensuring her economic independence.
Serke’s return to her rural village marked the beginning of her lifelong commitment to saving other women from suffering as she did. Today, Serke is an active ambassador who promotes safe delivery practices to expectant mothers in her community – saving the lives of babies and preventing fistula injuries.
Allison Shigo, Founder, Healing Hands of Joy
Find out more about our fistula partners here.