01/16/2012 07:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mother Courage: A New Lease on Life Following Fistula Surgery

There is nothing more devastating for a mother than the loss of her child.

But the women I met in Tanzania while reporting on obstetric fistulas were remarkable for enduring not only that loss, but subsequent isolation from their families for years, sometimes decades.

And yet these women demonstrated a quiet, dignified fortitude.

In a cruel irony, the last 10 years in the life of the optimistically-named Happiness Josephat Miyawa have been truly miserable.

When she was 19 she suffered a fistula while giving birth to her third child. An obstetric fistula is a tear between the birth passage and bladder or rectum. It causes severe incontinence that makes it impossible for the woman to remain clean.

The babies usually die during the prolonged birth that causes a fistula. In Happiness's case, the child survived, but her marriage did not. The unpleasant odor drove her husband away. He said she wasn't clean.

As Happiness told me her story she remained stoic, but tears welled in her eyes when she explained that her husband also took her three children.

Alone, unclean and helpless. That's how Happiness spent the next decade.

But that's about to change. Happiness is preparing for corrective surgery, and a new lease on life.

The operation is taking place at a disability hospital called Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania (CCBRT), which is based in the country's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.

CCBRT provides free surgery and rehabilitation to hundreds of women every year. And those women couldn't be more grateful.

One of them, Rukia Shabiby, had the operation a few weeks ago and is now ready to go home.

Each Friday, the patients and staff from the fistula ward hold a sending-off ceremony for the women who are being discharged. They sing, clap their hands and smile, perhaps for the first time in years.

Rukia is one of them. She lived as a pariah in her community for 26 years after suffering a fistula at the age of 13. She had been married and became pregnant before her body was mature enough to bear the strain of childbirth.

Now she proudly holds a bright, smiling photograph presented to her by the staff at CCBRT. It portrays a woman full of life, of potential, who's never known happiness as an adult, but is ready to explore its possibilities.

David Lindsay is the Managing Editor of Global Health Frontline News. To see more on this story, click here.