It took six years—a period of her life that included a week of obstructed labor, the death of her child in her womb, being disowned by her family, and a 23-hour journey on foot and by bus from the rural Ethiopian community of Dabola Village to a hospital in the capital city of Addis Ababa—for 25-year-old Ayehu to learn that she was not the only woman to suffer from obstetric fistula.
Obstetric fistula—which affects more than two million women and girls every year, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia—develops during childbirth when a hole forms between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum, resulting in incontinence. The effects of fistula are portrayed in the 2008 Engle Entertainment documentary, A Walk to Beautiful, which recounts the experiences of Ayehu and four other Ethiopian women with the condition. The film, which won the International Documentary Association award for “Best Feature Documentary” and an Emmy for its television adaptation, reveals that the toll fistula takes is not only physical, but deeply emotional and psychological.
“Women who develop fistula tend to be ostracized,” says Abdi Ali ’13, who grew up in Ethiopia. It wasn’t until he took a women’s studies course at Denison—and watched A Walk to Beautiful with his class—that Ali realized the extent to which women with fistula are often shamed by families and divorced by husbands who don’t realize that the condition is medical and not the woman’s fault. “They’re alone,” says Ali, who graduated with a degree in history. “Fistula destroys their lives.”
With a $10,000 grant from Davis Projects for Peace, which funds grass-roots projects to promote peace and understanding worldwide, Ali and Shiyu “Amy” Huang ’13 will spend the summer in Dabola Village establishing a community health center for women affected by obstetric fistula.
Ali and Huang, an economics major with minors in philosophy and German, will work with medical professionals from Addis Ababa to train local midwives to staff a community health center where women and young girls can seek medical and psychological attention for fistula. In addition, the team will emphasize fistula education in the community, making sure that both men and women are aware of the causes of fistula as well as the cures.
“People see some issues [like fistula] as women’s issues,” says Ali, “but they’re not just women’s issues. They’re men’s issues. They’re human issues.”