Statement by UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Obstetric Fistula, May 23, 2020
Last November, the world gathered in Nairobi to celebrate the huge strides made over the past 25 years in promoting the health and rights of women and girls. With a deep sense of urgency, vision and hope, world leaders – from presidents to ordinary citizens, refugees to royalty, young activists to CEOs – are committed to accelerating actions to ensure health and sexual and reproductive rights for all.
Barely six months later, this commitment is put to the test like never before. As health systems struggle to respond to COVID-19, the pandemic is expected to weigh heavily on maternal and newborn health. The crisis is already worsening the economic, social and logistical obstacles that women and girls face in accessing sexual and reproductive health services.
Even when services are available and accessible, the fear, misinformation and stigma associated with COVID-19 discourage some pregnant women from seeking obstetric care.
Failure to receive timely medical treatment will certainly lead to a dramatic increase in obstetric fistula, a serious injury to childbirth resulting from prolonged and obstructed labor.
Poor women and girls in rural areas are particularly at risk. The disproportionate incidence among the poor of this debilitating and sometimes fatal disease is a reflection of social and economic inequalities and the unequal enjoyment of the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health.
Even during better times, they are more likely to lack access to qualified health personnel. Child marriage and early motherhood are other contributing factors.
While obstetric fistula has been virtually eliminated in developed countries, hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the developing world are still living with this debilitating condition.
As lead of the Global Campaign to End Obstetric Fistula, UNFPA provides funding and support for prevention, treatment and reintegration programs for women recovering from obstetric fistula.
Since 2003, we have enabled over 113,000 women to undergo obstetric fistula repair surgery.
However, we will need to accelerate efforts if we are to achieve our global ambition to end fistula by 2030, the target date for the Sustainable Development Goals.
To this end, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic must ensure the provision of essential sexual and reproductive health services, including midwifery and emergency obstetric care.
On this International Day for the Elimination of Fistula, the memory of the late Dr. Catherine Hamlin, who died in March of this year, is still vivid.
She has spent most of her long life treating women and girls with obstetric fistula, focusing not only on physical injuries, but also on the scars created by stigma and discrimination.
Her charity, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, has brought hope and healing to thousands of women and girls, raised awareness of the obstetric fistula and encouraged innovative efforts to end it.
Let us work in memory of Dr. Hamlin to realize his lifelong dream and our long-standing aspiration to eliminate this preventable condition.
By doing so, we will help protect the health and human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable women and girls.