A darling, petite young woman with a beautiful smile on the outside, Mecca’s reality is a daily onslaught of pain and shame due to a completely preventable injury of pregnancy, afflicting a million women and resulting in untold stillbirths.
I was in Ethiopia with a project focused on the appalling absence of Water/Sanitation/Hygiene (WASH) in health-care facilities. It’s a global health scandal impacting hundreds of thousands of clinics and hospitals around the world. But I hadn’t anticipated meeting Mecca.
Mecca has been pregnant 10 times. She has seven surviving children. She is only 30 years old.
We hiked through farmlands to reach the small stick and mud house where Mecca lives with her husband and seven children. She greeted us with her welcoming smile that belies her daily suffering. After the birth of her fifth child, a hard labor that lasted two days, she began leaking urine and for three years now, she’s suffered from a preventable injury called “fistula.” Fistula typically occurs during obstructed labor, leaving an open hole through which urine and feces leak uncontrollably.
The lifetime risk of a woman in sub-Saharan Africa dying from pregnancy or childbirth is 1 in 22 according to the World Health Organization, WHO. For every woman who dies, at least 20 more suffer severe gynecological problems following childbirth. That’s the terrible reality for women around the world and Mecca is one of them. Mecca has a constant, painful rash from leaking urine. In more extreme cases, women are left crippled by nerve damage.
Maybe as bad as the symptoms is the shame. Mecca told me that people pinch their noses if she enters a home. She tries to hide her condition when she goes to market, but she told me she’s ignored and avoided because she smells.
For the last year, she’s been unable to work in the fields as a day laborer (also her husband’s livelihood), because her condition is worsening. She’s in pain, lonely, depressed and cries a lot. She says sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed early to collect water and firewood and care for her children. To his credit, her husband has not left her. For many women, fistula drives their husband away.