#WomenInspire: How access to surgery and vocational training is changing lives

By Kate Grant

March 3, 2017

Rose Chelimo lives in Kenya’s western town of Burnt Forest. She is 27, with two young sons, ages four and eight. A contract seamstress, she also leases two plots of land for farming, and runs a successful tailoring business out of her home. With the money she earns, both of her sons can go to school.

Rose’s life today is a drastic contrast from the life she lived just two years ago. At twenty years old, Rose entered into her second marriage, and became pregnant. While the delivery of her first son went smoothly, this second birth did not. After a long and difficult labor, her baby boy survived, but she developed an obstetric fistula, a devastating childbirth injury that leaves women leaking fecal matter or urine. As is often the case with women suffering from fistula, her husband left her. She went to live with her family, but she was shunned.

The primary hospital nearby was only able to treat fistula during periodic clinics. The facilities that did exist lacked the materials and training to meet demand. This shortage of facilities, the dearth of skilled surgeons and the absence of fistula education forced Rose to spend the next four years of her life suffering.

Eventually, Rose received treatment for her fistula at the Gynocare Fistula Center in Eldoret, Kenya. Access to treatment transformed her life. Rose has only a 7th grade education, but since receiving treatment for her fistula, she has returned to her home village to establish the only tailoring business in her area. Her successful business supports her family, and plays a role in the success of the community, too.

Because of a lack of access to skilled care, more than 1 million women worldwide suffer from the discomfort and stigma that result from a condition that is largely preventable and treatable. 

Since 2009, with support from Johnson & Johnson, the Fistula Foundation has provided funding for surgery for more than 25,000 women – 3,000 in Kenya alone. By training local doctors in fistula surgery, the Foundation reinforces a local, long-term and sustainable pathway to meet the demand for skilled care. The organization has sponsored new facilities, and supported outreach activities to address the need for more, better-equipped treatment centers and to educate communities about fistula.

Access to treatment was just the beginning of Rose’s journey. She found support from Beyond Fistula, which provided her with education and vocational skills training to establish a new life. She graduated from their tailoring program in less than a year. The life she lives today is nothing short of inspiring – a testament to what is possible when women are bold and brave, and empowered with access to health care and economic opportunity.

We know that obstetric fistula occurs in areas with high levels of poverty, and where women are disempowered. Despite significant development in Kenya, 43.4% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, many girls are married off early, and only 43.8% of women give birth with a skilled attendant.   

Thanks to innovative partnerships that are training surgeons and skilled birth attendants, and connecting women to the vocational training they need, more women like Rose are able to access surgical treatment and job opportunities. Fistula Foundation and its partners are providing women with the treatment they need, allowing women who have often lost years of their lives to fistula to rebuild and support themselves through their own creativity, hard work and independence.

Every woman who suffers from fistula should have the access to treatment and economic opportunity that allowed Rose to transform her life. We have made great strides, but with expanded access to fistula surgery, and skilled care at birth to prevent fistula from happening in the first place, more women can live the healthy lives they deserve.

Photo credit: Beyond Fistula 

Take Action Challenge

March 8 marks International Women’s Day. In collaboration with partners, Johnson & Johnson is sharing the stories of women on the front lines of care, and the ways in which inspiring women are improving health for their families and communities.

  • Share your story during the Storytelling Hour on March 7 at 11am EST, by following #WomenInspire on Twitter.


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