From Shame to Celebration: Mercy Ships Women’s Health Program

23 May 2021

Welcoming a new baby into the family should be a time of pure joy and celebration. But for an estimated 100,000 women around the world each year, childbirth instead ended in a devastating injury.

Obstetric fistula is a condition that often occurs during prolonged and obstructed labor when women don’t have access to adequate maternity care. Not only does it sometimes result in a tragic stillbirth, but it can also leave women incontinent and permanently leaking urine.

On May 23, the world observes International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, a day to raise awareness and rally support for a solution. In honor of the many women who suffer from this condition, we’re here to shine a spotlight on their stories and share how our Women’s Health surgical program is making a difference.

The Devastating Impacts of an Obstetric Fistula

The impact of an obstetric fistula goes far beyond the physical. As a result of being incontinent, many women experience tragic social shunning and find themselves on the sidelines of their communities and sometimes even their families. Being outcast from society often leads to deep feelings of shame and loneliness. For women who don’t have the means to afford surgery, there’s no end in sight: without surgical intervention, the condition can last for the rest of their lives.

Of course, the social and emotional implications of this condition make seeking help particularly challenging. For many women, social ostracism has been a demoralizing and painful part of their condition. Coming to the ship to receive healing requires being among large groups of people and often traveling a far distance. Every woman who comes onboard our ships to receive fistula repair surgery has already overcome incredible obstacles just by arriving.

A patient in the Mercy Ships Women's Health Program dances with joy after receiving free surgery to repair her obstetric fistula.
A women’s health patient dances at her Dress Ceremony on Deck 7.

Celebrating Stories of Hope Together

Freedom from obstetric fistula changes physical, emotional, and social wellbeing for women who live with this condition. There is one special day onboard our ships that highlights this transformation more than any other: the Dress Ceremony. After each successful round of recovery from fistula repair surgeries, the community onboard gathers to celebrate our patients.

During Dress Ceremonies, the recovered women receive beautiful dresses to wear and can share their story with the community. There are bright colors and plenty of hugs — and, always, there is dancing. Because OBF surgery is more than physical healing from a debilitating disease. It’s a chance to reenter society, reconnect with community, and walk from shame into freedom.

“I had this sickness for five years… but, today, it is finished! Now, when I wake up, I find myself dry. I’m fine – I have no problem now!” shared Bibiane, a mother of five who received surgery to heal her obstetric fistula in Benin.

Jacqueline had been abandoned by her husband and shunned by her community after living with an obstetric fistula. Finally, after eight years of suffering from incontinence, Jacqueline was healed during our field service in Cameroon: “I’m tired of living how I’ve been living, but now I am stronger and will have more opportunities!”

A difficult stillbirth left Mairamou with a shattered heart and a debilitating obstetric fistula. She prayed every day for healing from her disease. Finally, after her surgery onboard the Africa Mercy in Cameroon, Mairamou was ready for a new beginning: “There is a big difference in my heart. Before, I was worried and had bad thoughts. I’m a different person. I am free to go wherever I want. My doubts are gone!”

Mercy Ships Women's Health Program patient Mairamou leaves the Africa Mercy after receiving free surgery to heal her obstetric fistula.
Lucy Hedges, volunteer Ward Nurse, and patient Mairamou at the bottom of the gangway after being discharged from the ship.

Building Healing Connections Through Our Volunteers

Surgery is the starting point for recovery – but the community onboard plays its own unique healing role. It’s not only the medical crew that bring hope and healing to our Women’s Health patients. From the day crew who help us translate to the volunteers in reception who greet each passing patient with a huge smile, everyone onboard has a part to play in making each woman feel seen and valued.

The impact is felt. In the words of Tam Lowe, a previous Obstetric Fistula clinic team leader from Australia: “Being a woman and coming from a western culture, we don’t go through this. It’s nice to be able to give these ladies back their lives, because they lost a little part of themselves when they went through what they went through. Now, they can go back home and say ‘Look at me. I’m back.’”

A Mercy Ships Women's Health Program patient smiles
Hospital chaplain Clementine Tengue dressing one of the OBF patient for the ceremony

Partnering Long-Term with Local Organizations

 Beyond providing free surgeries to repair obstetric fistula conditions, how else does Mercy Ships invest in women’s health in our partnering countries? We strive to leave a lasting impact by collaborating and investing in other nonprofits and clinics based in our host nations. Through partnership and training, we can continue to support health system strengthening long after our ships leave. Our ongoing partnership with Freedom from Fistula, a charity based primarily in Madagascar and Sierra Leone, helps to provide free surgical repairs for patients suffering with fistula as well as preventive maternity care to stop fistulas from occurring in the first place.

Join Us in Sharing Hope

This International Day for Women’s Obstetric Fistula, we’re celebrating the courageous women whose lives have been transformed — and the many more to come when we return.

Want to join us in our mission? Discover more about our open positions and find your place onboard >>