05/30/2013 11:55 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Ask a Question: Restore a Life

It could have been another long, procedure-filled monthly meeting of the New Jersey State Board of Education in 1979 to which I had recently been appointed by the governor. The board was charged with setting policy for the public schools. On a warm autumn afternoon, however, this regular meeting turned into something quite life-changing for me. The Commissioner of Health was discussing the need for requiring sex education to counter the rising rates of teen pregnancies, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases among school-age young people which her department monitored. She believed that high-quality sex education programs were the right answer to preventing these problems and helping many young people escape too early childbearing and lives mired in poverty.

I leaned across the large, oval, highly polished board table in the Department of Education, where I and my fellow board members were sitting, raised my hand so the board president would acknowledge me and asked the Commissioner this question. "At what age do you think students first need to know about reproduction, how their bodies work, and how to avoid too early pregnancy and disease?" She didn't miss a beat: "By the end of fourth grade," she answered authoritatively.

As fate would have it that afternoon, I was the only person of the 13 around the table who asked a question about the importance of sex education. After the Commissioner departed, the board president asked me to chair a subcommittee tasked with analyzing the need for a statewide requirement for family life and sex education in all the public schools. I had never had any experience with this aspect of education. Before many weeks elapsed, the State Board was deeply involved in this controversial issue and I as chair of the subcommittee was the point person.

Months later, after a long battle that saw our opponents even bring a suit against us to the U. S. Supreme Court, the board passed a policy requiring locally-developed sex education instruction in elementary and secondary schools. In the end the policy was accepted, although I subsequently lost my seat on the board when a governor from the political party that opposed the policy was elected.

I settled in at Answer (formerly the Network for Family Life Education), at Rutgers University to direct the program's operations and to help schools implement the policy. As a consequence, I became much more involved in all issues of reproductive and sexual health especially for teenagers. Every day of my almost 25 years at Answer reinforced my belief in the efficacy of prevention as the first step toward solving problems like teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.

I realized, however, that one cannot ignore the treatment side of a serious health issue. So when I read one of Nicholas Kristof's columns in the New York Times about the devastating reproductive health problem of obstetric fistula in the poorest parts of the world, I understood anew the importance of treatment as well as prevention.

"What is the obstetric fistula?" is the question you might well ask me. Obstetric fistula is a childbirth injury caused by prolonged, obstructed labor that renders a woman incontinent. The smell from her leaking wastes is often too much for her husband to take, so he leaves her and she is also often ostracized by her own family and community. Too many times, a woman with obstetric fistula is told that she is cursed -- and what's worse, she believes it, too.
As I read about this condition, I wanted to learn more and I wanted to do something to help. My quest for my own education led me to The Fistula Foundation; one thing led to another, and today, I sit on the board of directors.

My role with The Fistula Foundation reminds me very much of my work with Answer. The ties that bind are clearly the reproductive health of teen girls and women and how prevention and treatment connect to each other.

Obstetric fistula is completely preventable, and treatable in most cases. But lack of education can prevent women from receiving treatment, even if she is fortunate enough to live in an area where treatment is available to her. Too many women hide their injury and live in secret shame because they are too afraid to ask for help. But community education programs like so many being run by partners of The Fistula Foundation, throughout Africa and Asia, are teaching women, husbands and communities that obstetric fistula is not a curse: it is a medical injury that can be repaired through surgery.

That surgery is the educational lesson for you and me. A woman whose life has been ruined by her fistula, who has been cast out by those who once loved her most -- can be healed, her life completely transformed, by fistula repair surgery that costs only, on average, $450.

Education is important because when you have knowledge about a problem, you are also empowered with the knowledge to do something about that problem. I am working to help heal women with obstetric fistula by sharing this knowledge with my friends, family and now, you. And I'm also working to help heal women with fistula in another important role with The Fistula Foundation: as a donor.

If I have answered your question, "What is an obstetric fistula?" I'd like to ask you to take the next step and like me help to treat this widespread problem in Africa and East Asia and restore a life. If you become a donor to The Fistula Foundation, we can together help to treat the extreme backlog of more than 500,000 women worldwide who are suffering lives of misery and isolation for doing nothing but try to bring a child safely into this world. You can join me by donating the full amount toward a $450 fistula repair surgery of give whatever you can toward helping her to lead an incontinence-free, normal life.

Answering a question does indeed have ramifications one can often not see. You may never hear from the woman or young girl whose life you will restore with your donation, but I know she will be deeply thankful.

Make a donation to the Fistula Foundation today.