05/10/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

A Fistula-Free Generation Is Achievable in Our Lifetime

May is the month when we celebrate our mothers. For Fatoumata, a mother in Guinea, she is celebrating a brand new life. Recently, she was lifted from the depths of darkness and isolation having been restored to her healthy self. For 16 years, Fatoumata lived with fistula, a devastating condition caused by obstructed labor which resulted in the loss of her baby and caused chronic, uncontrollable leakage of urine.

Fistula affects an estimated 2 million women across Africa and Asia, yet most people in the United States have never heard of it, simply because it rarely happens here or anywhere else in the developed world. Fistula became a thing of the past in the United States when cesarean sections became widely available to women with obstructed labor more than a century ago. So it's almost unthinkable that every year, up to 100,000 women develop fistula elsewhere in the world. The very fact that this condition still exists in 2013 is an indictment of how health systems are failing women.

But we know what it takes to change this reality for Fatoumata and millions like her, and we are making progress toward realizing our end goal: achieving a fistula-free generation in our lifetime.

Through EngenderHealth's Fistula Care project, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and in partnership with health ministries, institutions, and local hospitals, we are helping thousands of women access fistula treatment and prevention services across 10 countries. We partner to train surgeons and counselors, set up operating rooms, deliver medical equipment, and establish policies, standards, guidelines, and monitoring systems to ensure high-quality fistula treatment and prevention services. We also work with communities to raise awareness of how to prevent fistula and where to access services, as well as to reduce the stigma experienced by women living with fistula. Over the past decade, we have supported more than 25,000 fistula repair surgeries; some of these women had been living with the condition for 30 or 40 years.

Momentum is building globally. The United Nations has designated May 23 as the first International Day to End Obstetric Fistula. In honor of this inaugural year, I am calling for a fistula-free generation, and these are the steps we must take to achieve it:

  • Prevent fistula from happening in the first place. Women need better access to high-quality family planning, prenatal and postnatal care, labor and delivery services, and emergency obstetric care offered by competent providers.
  • Treat the current backlog of women who are living with fistula. We must continue to strengthen and build the capacity of local health systems and surgical teams to provide fistula surgeries. Many women have lived with this condition for decades because they are unable to access treatment.
  • Raise community awareness, to help women and families understand the causes of fistula and to reduce stigma, so that women who have been living and hiding with fistula can come forward and seek treatment.
  • Partner with governments and health institutions to ensure that quality fistula prevention and treatment services are well-resourced and sustainable.

There are solutions at hand but we need both political will and proper investment to reach women everywhere. I hope you will join me and EngenderHealth in supporting our efforts to make fistula as rare in Africa and Asia as it is today in the U.S. Please visit EngenderHealth to find ways you can make a difference and support mothers around the world.