By Angelique Reid, Communications Specialist, UNFPA Sierra Leone
BO, Sierra Leone, 7 December 2017 – Eighty women and girls between the ages of 15-52 stood in solidarity and with pride to receive their certificates as members of Haikal’s fifth graduating class on livelihood skills training for fistula survivors. The occasion marked the end of a dark and harrowing chapter in their lives: for many of the new graduates, fistula represented far more than a medical issue and their graduation ceremony represented for them a new lease on life.
In a powerful speech that moved many to tears, Yaewah Lahai, a 15-year-old fistula survivor from Kailahun District, spoke about the systemic disadvantages that lead women and girls like her to contend with the physical devastation of obstetric fistula. Having fully recovered, Yaewah spoke with unabashed confidence about how she was forced to marry a 65-year-old man as his fourth wife because her family could not afford the cost of her school fees: around 200,000 Leones (USD30). Yaewah became pregnant shortly after her marriage. Due the lack of skilled birth attendants in her community, Yaewah had no one to help her when she went into labour which became an agonizing process that lasted three days. Ultimately, Yaewah lost her baby during the process and because her pelvic tissues had been heavily compressed for such a long period of time, she developed obstetric fistula which left her body unable to withhold urine and fecal matter. Similar to many women and girls in her position, Yaewah was abandoned by her husband, relatives, friends and community and was forced into living in isolation. However, Yaewah spoke of how her story slowly turned to one of recovery and triumph, as she recalled the strength she gained through her treatment, therapy, rehabilitation and training courses, with the support of UNFPA.
UNFPA’s country representative, Dr. Kim Dickson, delivered the graduation’s keynote address which focused on preventing new cases by putting an end to early child marriage and the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation. “All women should have the right choose when they want to have a child, and how many children they want to have,” said Dr. Dickson, “A young girl’s body is not fully matured and it’s not equipped to carry a pregnancy which is what causes girls to develop fistula in the first place.”
Whilst Yaewah’s story was truly remarkable, the other 79 graduates had equally compelling stories. Executive Director of Haikal, Haja Hawa Turay, consistently referred to her new graduates as ‘champions’, as their road to recovery required lion-hearted determination. In addition to bearing the physical challenge of surgery, the women and girls had to undergo psychosocial counselling to mitigate other tragedies that they had experienced as well during the years of seclusion and isolation.