In many low- and middle-income countries, girls may marry as young as ten years of age, before their bodies can handle the stress of childbearing. Early pregnancies and childbirth are dangerous for these young girls and their babies. When girls, and women, have more pregnancies than their bodies can handle, infant and maternal mortality rises, as do devastating injuries to babies and mothers during birth. But one of the most damaging injuries is one you’ve likely not heard of, because the shame associated with it drives women into hiding.
When women give birth too young or too often, an injury of childbirth called fistula leaves women leaking urine and feces. They are left severely incontinent and are often abandoned or shunned by family and community due to their constant smell. Fistulas can be so severe they cause nerve damage and paralysis.More than 2 million women are thought to suffer with untreated obstetric fistula throughout Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Mideast. But it’s hard to know because so many of these women are outcast or hidden away. Fistula is so tragic that the World Health Organization has designated May 23, InternationalDay to End Obstetric Fistula, to help bring attention to this hidden shame and available solutions.
Many in our Christian community have become vocal advocates for safer birth. In addition to being strong advocates against risk factors like child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), our communities are also influential proponents for the Healthy Timing and Spacing of Pregnancies. I am part of a network of 150 Christian organizations working in global health in 31 countries. More than a decade ago we began promoting family planning because for those of us who believe in the sanctity of life, it is our moral calling. We must encourage girls and women to delay, space and limit pregnancies, fundamental to the health and wellbeing of all mothers and all children.
I became compelled to promote healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies because I’ve had the opportunity to get to know women who lost babies during childbirth, and I've heard heartbreaking stories from nurses and midwives who had patients die in childbirth; tragedies which could have been prevented if pregnancies were planned for times that were healthy for the mother. And I’ve also encountered so many women whose lives were drastically improved and even saved, by the ability to time and space their pregnancies, in my work as a reproductive health advisor for a Christian organization.
I’ve been inspired by young women, like Françoise M’bye, a nurse who has devoted her life to helping women protect themselves from unplanned pregnancies. Francoise left the relative comforts of living in the capital city of Senegal, to work in one of its more underserved health districts. This was her calling and her way of responding to the Christian call to help the poor and comfort the sick. In Senegal, 26 percent of women have undergone FGM, which further compounds the risks of childbirth and fistula injury. (FGM is even higher in other countries around in Africa, Asia and the Mideast.)
This is also my Christian calling. Many Christian organizations provide family planning education, counseling and contraceptive services. We also encourage husbands to be active participants in planning their families because working together, we see children flourish. We see it through healthier birth weights, better nutrition, increased access to education, and a higher quality of family life.
For women fortunate enough to receive obstetric fistula repair surgery, these organizations also help ensure that husbands and wives are able to prevent another pregnancy for 12 months until the fistula repair is completely healed. Imagine, approximately 100,000 maternal deaths could be prevented every year if women who did not wish to become pregnant had access to and used effective contraception.
As a Christian, I know I can make a difference and doing so makes me feel like I am answering my own calling. Jesus came to give us “Abundant life” (John 10:10). To me, that must include mothers who are given every hope and opportunity to bring healthy new life into the world.
Adrienne Allison has lived in Malawi and is one of the earliest members of Christian Connections for International Health, CCIH.