Voices

Better health for women just like Jennifer

Due to fistula — an injury during childbirth that causes incontinence — Jennifer remained outside when she attended church, kneeling in the dirt to pray. Without improving health for women who don't have proper care, issues like fistula can ruin their lives.

Due to fistula — an injury during childbirth that causes incontinence — Jennifer remained outside when she attended church, kneeling in the dirt to pray. Without improving health for women who don’t have proper care, issues like fistula can ruin their lives.

Fortunately, it can be fixed with a simple surgery. For Jennifer in Uganda and many women just like her, this means a new lease on life!

Read her story. 

*     *     *

In my travels reporting stories for World Vision, I’ve heard of fistula. I’ve even met the incredible Dr. Catherine Hamlin at her world-renowned fistula clinic in Ethiopia. We had tea together in her parlor. It was a life highlight for me.

But until I met Jennifer Nyirmbe in Uganda this past September, I had no idea how devastating fistula could be. Fistula destroyed Jennifer’s family.

Obstetric fistulas are injuries that happen during childbirth, often the the result of prolonged labor. In countries such as Uganda, where many women rely on traditional birth attendants, prolonged labor and rough handling can lead to internal damage that causes incontinence. Untreated, fistula can lead to infections, kidney disease, and even death.

Fistula ruins a woman’s life. Because a woman becomes incontinent, fistula can lead to her becoming ostracized by her family and her community.

It happened to Jennifer last year. “It disturbs me every day,” says Jennifer. “I have discharge all the time. It happens after I eat. It happens any time.”

In August 2015, Jennifer, then 21, delivered a baby at her uncle’s house, relying on traditional birth attendants: her aunts and cousins.

Due to fistula — an injury during childbirth that causes incontinence — Jennifer remained outside when she attended church, kneeling in the dirt to pray. Without improving health for women who don't have proper care, issues like fistula can ruin their lives.
Jennifer with her father Vincent. (©2016 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)

“We lost the child,” says her father, Vincent Owechi, 49. A week after delivering the stillborn child, Jennifer became incontinent. Because of Jennifer’s fistula, Jennifer’s mother left the family, taking Jennifer’s sister with her. Life had become too hard. The family’s existing poverty, combined with Jennifer’s debilitating condition, drove her mother away. She and her father lost everything but their faith.

“The plight of our family is in the hands of God,” says Vincent.

“She stays the whole day here,” says Vincent, as Jennifer sits on a papyrus mat. Movement for her is slow and causes her bladder to leak. There’s only one place Jennifer will go now.

“On Sunday, she goes to church to pray,” he says. Jennifer prays outside the church. She does not go inside. It would be too embarrassing to lose control of her bladder in church. “I pray that God will set me free,” says Jennifer.

Due to fistula — an injury during childbirth that causes incontinence — Jennifer remained outside when she attended church, kneeling in the dirt to pray. Without improving health for women who don't have proper care, issues like fistula can ruin their lives.
©2016 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren

We prayed together before we left: prayers for healing and comfort. As Jennifer rose to pray, her bladder began to leak, urine splattering on the papyrus mat like big fat drops of rain. My heart broke for her. In that instant it all became clear: incontinence caused by fistula turns beautiful young women like Jennifer into social pariahs.

Jennifer’s prayers were answered in September. World Vision Uganda held a fistula camp at Hoima Regional Referral Hospital in western Uganda. Four surgeons and two gynecologists specializing in fistula came from the national hospital in the capital, Kampala. For five days, they repaired 52 fistulas — almost half of the 110 patients who wanted the surgery.

Jennifer was one of the woman who had a successful surgery. She is already feeling better. The urine that used to flow has decreased significantly. Jennifer no longer remains homebound. She can now help her father garden and cook. She goes to the neighbors to visit.

Due to fistula — an injury during childbirth that causes incontinence — Jennifer remained outside when she attended church, kneeling in the dirt to pray. Without improving health for women who don't have proper care, issues like fistula can ruin their lives.
©2016 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren

Jennifer is so happy. She says she feels more comfortable with her body. She loves being social again. Now she’s thinking about a new life. She wants to go back to school so she can help her father.

Vincent is elated. “God bless World Vision,” he says. With no money to pay for the surgery, he says God made it possible. Now he has more time to work, making papyrus mats to sell.

Jennifer could not wait to go to church. She was discharged from the hospital on a Monday and went to church that Sunday. “I felt different,” she says, on entering the church. After worship and prayer, she went home and had dinner with her father — a celebration of new life.

There are still 58 women in the area who need this life-changing surgery. In the new year, World Vision Uganda will hold more fistula camps, bringing surgeons from Kampala to rural areas where women like Jennifer don’t have access to this kind of specialized treatment. There are so many women just like Jennifer in Uganda.

World Vision is working to make sure they have another chance at a full life.


With access to medical care before and during childbirth, fistulas are preventable. No family should ever needlessly watch their child die. Donate to provide medical care and better health for women!

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