Mercy Ships Founder on Restoring Dignity, Health to Women Suffering From Obstetric Fistula

8 photos(Photo: Mercy Ships/Debra Bell)Preventable and in most cases, treatable , obstetric fistula is a childbirth injury that leaves women incontinent and occurs when a woman or girl suffers prolonged, obstructed labor without relief from timely medical intervention.

As Thursday, May 23 marks the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, The Christian Post highlights a global faith-based charity which has been working for the past decade to end this painful and embarrassing medical condition that affects 50,000 women in new cases per year, worldwide.

Mercy Ships is a faith-based medical charity that deploys the world's largest private hospital ship, Africa Mercy, to several ports along the coast of West Africa to provide local inhabitants with first-rate medical professionals, top-notch medical and surgical facilities, and sanitary conditions for recovery and healing.

Since 2003, Mercy Ships has performed more than 2,790 successful procedures to correct obstetric fistula, a medical condition which occurs during child birth, when the baby gets lodged in the birth canal.

The pressure of the labor against the mother's bladder and colon often results in a hole in the birth canal, and without proper medical care, including performing a C-Section, the baby often dies and passes as a stillborn.

Not only do mothers in Africa then have to face the trauma of dealing with a stillborn death, but the obstetric fistula causes the women to become incontinent, leaving them with a social stigma that many times results in rejection by their husbands and society.

Mercy Ships seeks to correct obstetric fistulas so women may re-enter their society with grace and confidence, thus having the ability to marry and pursue a career without worrying about incontinence.

The organization also gives each woman a traditional African headdress and dress after her surgery as a symbol of her re-entering society as a healed, confident woman.

The Christian Post spoke with Don Stephens, president and founder of Mercy Ships, to learn more about how his charitable organization works to improve the life and self-worth of thousands of African women through their medical services.

CP: One website online referenced obstetric fistulas as being the "disease of the poor" because it often represents insufficient medical care. By performing surgeries to correct obstetric fistulas, do you believe you are helping to change how women in these African societies are perceived? Are you hoping to improve their status in society by freeing them from this disease?

Stephens: By accepting women with fistulas into the surgical program, Mercy Ships demonstrates and affirms women's intrinsic value and worth. Many are often shamed, rejected and belittled in their families and communities and with treatment they are able to again be part of their families and contribute, improving their self-worth as well.

When the woman leave the ship "dry," or healed of their fistula, they walk off the gangway changed. Not only because of the surgery, which has removed the smell associated with continuously being incontinent, but from being in our community onboard. They were accepted and loved unconditionally on the ship, even when they smelled badly and leaked urine on the floor. Deep in their souls, they began to realize that they were loveable. They leave with that gift tucked into their hearts. They will be accepted back into their communities and will be able to find work, and to marry, if they desire.

CP: What is the important symbolism behind giving an African woman a free headdress and dress after her surgery? For example, is it meant to instill self-confidence and to celebrate her beauty as a healthy woman?

Stephens: When a woman with a fistula has surgery onboard the Africa Mercy and is healed, she receives a new African headdress and dress. She dons her new outfit and then has her hair styled and her face made up. She feels clean and beautiful, perhaps for the first time in decades. It is an outward symbol of an inner renewal of hope. It is our way of celebrating with her as she sheds the old shame and embarrassment. It symbolizes her new start and fills her with self- confidence.

CP: If you could offer one prayer for those suffering from obstetric fistulas on May 23, what would the prayer be?

Stephens: We pray for the millions of women who are outcasts and cannot live the quality of life they deserve. We pray their burden will be lifted; we pray they be led to the place where they can receive the comfort, guidance and surgery that they so desperately need.

CP: Does Mercy Ships also seek to evangelize to those visiting their ships for medical care?

Stephens:  Our patients have the opportunity to observe and be a recipient of a demonstration of the love of God in many forms onboard the Africa Mercy. For some it comes through a gentle touch, a kind word, a smile. For another it might be in the form of a dressing being changed with patience and compassion.

Mercy Ships follows the 2000-year-old model of Jesus. The Good News is Jesus! I don't know of anyone we've encountered of any other faith who has had a problem with Jesus and our model of following Jesus. When the situation was appropriate, He spoke into people's lives. Mainly, He loved people. He provided healing for those who were blind, lame and with lots of other kinds of diseases. And we are here to do the same. For Mercy Ships, that's what it means to follow Jesus.

Mercy Ships was founded in 1978 by Stephens, and has since produced four hospital ships during its 35-year history, the largest being the current ship, Africa Mercy.

This global charity holds offices around the world and has benefited more than 2.42 million people. It chooses which countries to provide medical aid to by using the poorest-ranked countries in the United Nations Human Development Index.

In recognition of International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, the United Nations Population Fund, which leads and coordinates the Campaign to End Fistula, released a statement which read:

"On this first-ever International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, let us redouble our efforts to put an end to this grave global injustice. By raising awareness and support, including funding, we can make this a 'game-changing' year for fistula. Working together, we can end the shame, end the isolation, and end fistula."