Health, Lifestyle

The shocking childbirth injury affecting thousands of women

Melissa Imbesi by Melissa Imbesi
May 9th, 2019

Picture this: You’re in labour. The pain is gruelling and as the hours turn into days, you know something is horribly wrong. There are no medical professionals in sight, no hospital nearby to give you the C-section you desperately need.  After writhing in pain for a period of time no human should have to endure, you realise that your baby has died.

Luckily, you have survived – but as a result of a prolonged, obstructed labour, you have sustained a horrific internal injury known as an obstetric fistula. Simply put, a hole has formed in the area that connects your bladder or rectum with the birth canal and as a result, your body now leaks urine and/or faeces in a way you cannot control. To add to the emotional trauma of losing your baby and the daily, physical pain of living with a fistula, you have now been ostracized from your community and abandoned by your family. You are alone and invisible.

Now, imagine that all this has happened to you and you’re still only a child yourself.

The awful reality of living with obstetric fistula

Before this afternoon, I had no idea what an obstetric fistula was. I realise that this puts me in an incredibly fortunate category of women, because in the developed Western world obstetric fistulas are virtually a thing of the past. However, this is affecting so many of our sisters around the world… and it’s happening to predominantly young girls. These kids are often married off before they even become teenagers, impregnated by their husbands and then left to endure (typically medically unassisted) labour and birth – something that their small, underdeveloped bodies aren’t equipped to handle.

Devastatingly, the World Health Organisation reports that an estimated TWO MILLION women and girls are living with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and a further 50,000 – 100,000 will suffer from the condition worldwide each year.  In approximately 80-95% of obstetric fistula cases, the hole can be repaired surgically… but how, when access to health care is so limited?

Dr hamlin visits with a patient
Image: Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation

That’s where Earth angel and Australian gynaecologist, Dr Catherine Hamlin, comes in. 2019 celebrates 60 years since Catherine and her fellow doctor and husband, Reg, arrived in Ethiopia. After meeting with the fistula patients there, Catherine and Reg quickly devoted their lives to helping the girls and women who had been so traumatically affected. Since 1959, the Hamlins have treated over 60,000 fistula patients in Ethiopia.

What this incredible woman has done, and continues to do, is beyond extraordinary. Not only are the surgeries completely life-changing for these young women, but under Catherine and her staff’s care, they receive so much more than medical assistance. In Catherine’s own words, “We do not treat just the hole in the bladder. We treat the whole patient with love and care, literacy and numeracy classes, a new dress and money to travel home.” She has also set up The Hamlin College of Midwives, which recruits students from rural areas and provides education that enables them to leave with a Midwifery degree. They are then placed into communities where their skills will, literally, save lives.

Catherine Hamlin was also featured on Oprah back in 2004 and you can watch the touching interview below…

When Reg Hamlin sadly passed away in 1993, Catherine refused to leave Ethiopia and continues to live on the grounds of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital they built together. This year on her 95th birthday, her wish is to totally eradicate fistula in Ethiopia by the year 2030… but she needs our help.

Luckily for us, supporting the work of the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation is easy –  and with Mother’s Day around the corner, very convenient.  The Hamlin Shop offers a range of beautiful, ethically made gifts from Africa, with many products made by fistula patients at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia. The best bit is that each purchase supports the incredible patient who crafted it. Below are a few of the gorgeous, hand-made gifts on offer…

Leather Cross Bag – Meron, $89

Brave and Beautiful Wrap, $90

Emy Disc Earrings – Silver, $45

Handwoven Takeze Towel – Grey – $55

Salad Servers – Curved – $26

There are HEAPS of other awesome products to choose from, including yummy shea butters, gorgeous blankets, candles, knitted toys, books, tea towels, ceramics, wraps, totes and more.  You can shop all the products online here, by phone on (02) 9440 7001 or pop into their Sydney store at 1396 Pacific Highway, Turramurra NSW.

If you’re interested in helping to continue the incredible work done by The Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation (which would make the most excellent Mother’s Day gift in your mum’s name), you can do so by:

Becoming a monthly donor: A donation of $50 a month will cover the cost of one transformative fistula operation for a girl or woman in need . Learn more about monthly donations here.

$60 Donation: This goes towards locating women suffering from untreated fistulas.

$600 Donation: Will fund one standard, life-changing fistula operation.

$4500 Donation: Will fund a one year education scholarship for a student at the Hamlin College of Midwives.

To learn more about The Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, you can visit their website here (, follow them on Facebook here and Instagram here.