The fight to end obstetric fistula, one of the most serious and tragic injuries that can occur during childbirth, could be threatened by the current pandemic of COVID-19.
Obstetric fistula is preventable; it can largely be avoided by delaying the age of first pregnancy; the cessation of harmful traditional practices; and timely access to obstetric care. Unfortunately, the current pandemic affects all these preventive measures in developing countries where obstetric fistula still exists – countries in which health care systems, even before the coronavirus outbreak, failed to provide accessible, quality maternal health care.
Due to COVID-19, it is expected that 13 million more child marriages could take place by 2030 than would have otherwise. Families are more likely to marry off daughters to alleviate the perceived burden of caring for them, especially in the anticipated economic fallout of the pandemic.
The pandemic is also expected to cause significant delays in programmes to end female genital mutilation (FGM) – something that could lead to a spike in FGM cases, according to UNFPA, which is a contributing factor for obstetric fistula.
As the virus advances in these countries, health services become overloaded, or provide a limited set of the services that women need. At the same time, many women and girls also skip important medical check-ups for fear of contracting the virus.
With this possible future scenario of preventive measures in danger, now more than ever, it is important to call on the international community to use the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula to significantly raise awareness and intensify actions towards ending obstetric fistula, as well as urging post-surgery follow-up and tracking of fistula patients.
There is still room for optimism. Obstetric fistula exists, but fortunately, it can be treatable. Watch, read and listen to the experiences of these brave women, who suffered in silence, but are now an example of hope.
Theme 2020: “End gender inequality! End health inequities! End Fistula now!”
This year’s Observance speaks up a clear message: “End gender inequality! End health inequities! End Fistula now!”. Women and girls at risk of living with fistula faced structural and systemic barriers to care before the pandemic. As health systems across the globe struggle to cope with the COVID-19 response, sexual and reproductive health services risk being sidelined. Denial or lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services is especially devastating for women and girls who are already dealing with economic, social, cultural and logistical barriers.
The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities (including gender inequalities), exposing vulnerabilities in social and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.
As the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, efforts to end fistula should continue. Provision of universal quality maternal health care services, including an adequate numbers of competent midwives and fistula surgeons to attend the woman already affected, should be a priority. Fistula prevention, treatment and follow-up services should be given high attention during pandemics.