Restoring women’s place in society

About Obstetric Fistula

What is Obstetric Fistula?

Obstetric fistula is a preventable and mostly treatable condition that primarily affects young women from poor backgrounds. Fistula is one of the most devastating of all pregnancy-related disabilities. Usually the result of obstructed labor coupled with a lack of skilled medical care, obstetric fistula most often leads to permanent incontinence – a continuous leakage of urine and loss of control over bowel movements.

How does it happen?

A vaginal fistula, which usually affects pregnant women, results from prolonged labor, usually lasting two to five days, with delivery occurring only after the baby dies. During labor, the baby’s head and the woman’s pubic bone form a vice, cutting off blood flow to the tissue trapped in this area. Following delivery, the dead tissue sloughs away, leaving an abnormal opening between the birth canal and the bladder (less frequently, the rectum). Unable to control the flow of urine (and/or faeces), the woman is perpetually wet and soiled. Affected women are often abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by their families and communities.

Dress Ceremony

Transformational Healthcare through Fistula Programmes

Fistula Repair Operations

Onboard our ship, the Africa Mercy, Mercy Ships performs free fistula repair operations for affected women. The healed patients are given new dresses and headdresses as symbols of their restored life.

Training & Prevention

To help build the capacity of healthcare systems in developing nations to address the condition of fistula, Mercy Ships networks with and provides training for local & international healthcare professionals, including surgeons, nurses and traditional birth attendants.

Dress Ceremony

Restoring dignity goes beyond surgery. Women afflicted by obstetric fistula are often outcasts from their own homes – their relationships lost, their clothes soiled. We send them back with a celebration and a new dress, symbolizing their newfound wholeness and a brighter outlook to the future.



Fistula Statistics

  • The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that every year between 50,000 and 100,000 women sustain an obstetric fistula during childbirth.
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than two million women are currently living with obstetric fistulas, a large number of which are in Africa.
  • Obstetric fistula is both preventable and treatable, a condition that no woman should have to endure. Poverty is the number one indirect cause of obstetric fistula around the world. Obstructed labor and obstetric fistula account for 8% of maternal deaths worldwide. (Source: EngenderHealth)
“I saw a documentary about 15 years ago in a hotel room and I sat down on the end of the bed and wept and a voice inside me said ‘one day you will serve on that ship’ it never left me and came to mind often in big and small ways."