By Ishmael Dumbuya
A-28-year-old Fistula survivor, Iye Joseph, from Kenema District, expressed her profound gratitude to UNFPA, HaiKal and the Iceland Embassy, for their unwavering support in helping her and other survivors recuperate from their Fistula condition.
Giving her testimony, Iye Joseph explained that in 2022, a certain man arrived in their community announcing that whoever had Fistula should make herself available so they could take her to HaiKal, a hospital in Bo that treats and takes care of Fistula patients.
She said initially she felt ashamed to come forward, as there is high stigma attached to Fistula Victims in the community.
“Upon hearing the announcement, I sent my grandmother to go and keenly listen to the announcement,” she narrated.
She added that she was feeling persistent stomach pain after delivering her baby, and that her grandmother then took her to HaiKal Foundation, following the instructions from the man that shared the news.
She said she was taken to the facility for surgery, and that the operation was very successful.
The fistula survivor made narrated her ordeal during the 2023 Commemoration of the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula which took place on Tuesday 23rd May at the Bo Government Hospital, ‘20 years on- Progress but not enough! Act now end Fistula by 2030.’
In his keynote address, the Minister of Health and Sanitation, Dr. Austin Demby stated that access to essential care for women in pregnancy and childbirth is placed high on the national agenda, adding that the government aims at ending the occurrence of obstetric fistula in Sierra Leone.
“This can only be possible if we strengthen the quality of our reproductive health services at all levels of the health care system and across the life stages of our women and girls,” he noted.
The minister went on to state that every effort should be made to find and treat all women still living with obstetric fistula regardless of their location, to restore their dignity.
In that regard, the Ministry of Health and Sanitation has developed the National Fistula Strategy which clearly articulates how the country intends to achieve that goal.
In his outline of the strategies, the minister highlighted that his ministry is committed to Preventing Obstetric Fistula, noting that it will be anchored on improving access to quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls across the life stages, including comprehensive obstetric care, and sensitizing communities about obstetric fistula and how to prevent it.
He also cited improving care for women with obstetric fistula, which includes identification of fistula survivors wherever they are, liking them to surgical care, and providing rehabilitation and social re-integration services after surgery.
He further stated that they would strengthen governance, leadership, program management, and partnerships towards elimination of Obstetric Fistula.
He said they intend to improve resource mobilization and financing for elimination of obstetric fistula, and ensure sustainability of the interventions,and to Strengthen Monitoring and Evaluation, learning and research on obstetric fistula in Sierra Leone.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Country Representative, Nadia Rashid, stated that the commemoration was geared towards observing a special milestone, marking 20 years of the global campaign to end fistula.
She said they needed to accelerate their joint efforts and actions to be able to end fistula by 2030.
She went on to state that in 2015, the world committed to the Sustainable Development Goals as a global blueprint to end poverty, foster peace, and safeguard rights and dignity of all people, by 2030.
“This Agenda calls on us not only to leave no one behind in realizing development aspirations, but to reach the furthest behind first,” she emphasized.
She added that Fistula is a condition that represents the critical importance of that call to reach the furthest behind first, and that women and girls living with fistula often face extreme marginalization and isolation, depriving them of an income, home, family and community.
“Globally, half a million women and girls are estimated to be living with fistula. The condition is one of the most serious and tragic childbirth injuries, and yet it is almost entirely preventable. Fistula is driven by failings in our health and social systems, and compounded by poverty and gender inequality, including harmful practices such as child marriage and adolescent pregnancy,” she said.
She indicated that UNFPA and partners launched the global campaign to end fistula, and much progress has been made since that time, remarking that with support from UNFPA, nearly 140,000 women have undergone fistula repair surgeries globally, and in Sierra Leone, since 2011, UNFPA has partnered with the Aberdeen Women’s Centre and the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to support more than 1,800 women to undergo fistula surgeries.
She climaxed on the note that for every woman who dies in child birth, 20 or more are injured or disabled, adding that timely access to high-quality care, and greater efforts to reduce maternal injury and disability, are therefore critical to saving lives of mothers and new-borns as well as to preventing fistula.
“Sierra Leone has made commendable progress in this regard, reducing maternal mortality by almost 74% between 2000 and 2020. This success is a result of significant improvements in quality of care, access to skilled birth attendance, and deliveries in health facilities, in line with the ambitious vision set by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation,” she said.
The UN diplomat called on the health sector in partnership with the social sector, traditional and religious leaders and communities, to ensure timely access to high-quality emergency obstetric and new-born care, including trained professionals with midwifery skills at childbirth, to ensure universal access to modern contraception, including by empowering women to decide on when to have children and how many to have, to intensify efforts to end child marriage and reduce adolescent pregnancy, including by enabling young people to access sexual and reproductive health information and services, and engaging men and boys as allies in promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls.
The commemoration ended with an on the site visitation, wherein staff and the leadership of UNFPA, HaiKal Foundation, PPSL, Aberdeen Women Center, Iceland Embassy, and pressmen visited the two Fistula facilities in Bo. That is, the West Africa Fistula Center and the HaiKal Fistula Foundation.