Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Meeting the Girls

Today we visited Nkhoma Hospital in Nkhoma, Malawi, which is run by the Presbyterian Church of Central Africa. Each month the hospital admits about 1,000 patients all of which come to the hospital on their own or are referred to the hospital by local clinics. The government, organizations like UNFPA, and other donations support this hospital and allow for patients to be treated free of charge. One of the main procedures performed at this hospital is the repairing of fistula. A fistula is a connection between two spaces. Obstetric fistula is an abnormal opening between the bladder and the vagina that allows feces and urine to leak through the vagina. It is due to prolonged labor; pressure from the baby's skull will push against a mother's pelvis and cause damage to the tissue. The prolonged labor also affects the baby, and unfortunately the result is usually a stillbirth. The physical effects of this condition are obviously painful; however what I find even more heartbreaking is the psychological and emotional effects of the fistula. Fistula causes women to leak urine and stool continuously, and often husbands will leave their wives and women are thrown out of communities because they are considered to be a disgrace. There are many beliefs and misconceptions about the condition and most people do not understand that this condition is not due to the actions or the behavior of the woman.
At the Nkhoma Hospital I had the opportunity to hear the stories of two women who suffered from obstetric fistula, but with the help of the doctors at the hospital, they are now recovering. One woman lived with the condition for twenty-three years. For almost half of her life she was considered an outcast and suffered tremendously from something that she had no control over. Just imagine for a moment that you are in labor for half of the day. You live several miles from the nearest health clinic and you know that you are having trouble and you need to get help. The only way to get to the clinic is to walk, so you walk in excruciating pain to the clinic. You get there only to discover that your baby has passed away, and at no fault of your own you have developed a hold in your vaginal wall. Now, you have no control over your urine or feces, and people in your village stray away from you because you carry with you an unbearable scent. This story is common; at least two million girls and women live with untreated obstetric fistulas.
Although the hospital in Nkhoma is doing great work to provide women with treatment for fistula and other reproductive health issues, there is not enough space or resources to help all those in need. Currently there are only four hospitals in Malawi that perform fistula operations and this hospital only has the capability to do two operations per week. Today there were eleven women at the hospital waiting to be operated on, and the doctor explained that often women will be put on a waiting list for months before they are able to be treated.
Fistula is obviously not an issue in the US, as we have the resources and the transportation to get women to the hospital before a fistula can form. My heart bleeds for the women all over the world who suffer from fistula. I think that this condition must be the most humiliating experience for a female.
As if this day wasn't already overwhelming, in addition to visiting the hospital I also traveled to Lilongwe to meet with the Malawi Girl Guides Association. MGGA, is an organization that work with young girls ages ten through twenty five, to increase awareness about HIV/AIDS, to promote gender equality and safe sex practices, and most importantly to encourage the young ladies to chase their dreams.
When the bus pulled into the dirt parking lot of the MGGA center, the air was immediately filled with the sound of loud, joyous voices. The young girls had traveled from many villages to greet us and to share with us their songs, dances, and poems. More powerfully then anything was their spirit. The young girls come from many different backgrounds, one twenty three year old named Lexa, had endured the death of her mother, and was now the sole caretaker of her family. She has dreams of becoming a pilot and although she had faced many challenges in her life, she is adamant about accomplishing her goals.
For me, these children are inspiring. So often I complain or become upset by the challenges and difficulties in my life. These young ladies did not allow their struggles to discourage them or deter their dreams. If there is one thing that I can take with me from this trip it is the spirit of those girls. All women would benefit to experience the empowerment and the courage that the girls at the MGGA showed me today.
Today's blog is a little deeper then the others, because for me, today was especially overwhelming. I am still trying to process and articulate the impact that this experience has had on my life. With that said, I am ready for bed…goodnight and please tune in tomorrow…

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