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New hope for women living in shame and discomfort

VSO/Maheder Haileselassie

Volunteering has the power to shine a light on a little talked-about condition and help some of the countless women affected worldwide, writes Lucy Taylor.

People don’t like to talk about pelvic organ prolapse.

The condition, which can be embarrassing, debilitating and painful, involves one or more of the pelvic organs (bladder, colon and womb) falling out of position and bulging out of the wall of the pelvic floor. This can lead to incontinence, mobility problems and social isolation for many of the women affected.

Any woman, anywhere in the world can suffer from this condition. However, it is especially common in poorer mothers who either have delivered babies very young, or had a large number of pregnancies. 

Pelvic organ prolapse is tragically preventable. But factors like child marriage and poor access to family planning and health services mean a whopping 12% of women in the Tigray region of Ethiopia are sufferers. New VSO-supported research, with the region’s Bureau of Health, local NGO Mums for Mums, and Mekelle University College of Health Sciences, has confirmed this high prevalence for the first time.

Disabled and discriminated against

VSO/Maheder Haileselassie

Meberete Berhan, 80, plays with a younger relative while she awaits a VSO-supported procedure to correct the pelvic organ prolapse which has left her isolated and helpless.

“I was married at seven years old and had my first child at 14,” remembers Meberete Berhan, now 80, from Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

“Living with prolapses hasn’t been easy. People discriminate against you in society. They do not want to interact with you or allow you to attend social functions.”

The condition isn’t just highly stigmatised, but also can be seriously debilitating: “A problem I face is constantly having to rely on others for help. I am lucky some of my children live with me, because with the prolapses I am not able to fetch water or even clean up.”

Luckily, the condition is correctable. Even more luckily for Meberete, her condition was treated thanks to a VSO-supported campaign mobilising doctors from across Ethiopia to offer women corrective procedures, free of charge.

VSO/Maheder Haileselassie

Dr Yibrah Berhe, who is volunteering as part of the campaign, consults with Mebrehat before her operation

Satisfying progress

Dr Yibra Berhe is an obstetrician and gynaecologist volunteering his time to treat women with pelvic organ prolapse at Mekele Hamlin Fistula Hospital, a special facility set up exclusively for sufferers.

“I chose to volunteer because I know there are many mothers who have this problem who cannot afford to get treatment.

“These women are the most disadvantaged. There is a psychological toll as well – a lot of them suffer from depression. Some have the problem for 30 years without understanding what is wrong or that it can be treated. But after surgery I know these women will leave the hospital smiling – that is very satisfying.”

The campaign successfully treated 102 women for pelvic organ prolapse, but this is just the start of concerted efforts to address the issue.

Volunteer researcher Bernard Mbwele VSO/Maheder Haileselassie

Volunteer researcher Bernard Mbwele

Understanding the scale of the issue

The efforts of VSO volunteer researcher Bernard Mbwele, an epidemiologist from Tanzania have resulted in the first set of reliable data on pelvic organ prolapse, revealing that more than one in ten women (12%) here are sufferers.

"I was shocked to find this prevalence. If you have 100 women, 12 will be experiencing problems related to pelvic organ prolapse. It's my wish that this research may strengthen their case for support.”

“For me it's an honour to be able to facilitate development of health services in a country like Ethiopia, especially coming from another country. To me, this is a role model practice.

“I hope other countries, other partners, can learn from VSO that you don’t need a huge investment to make a difference. If we in developing countries could start with whatever little we have, just show up and use what we have in our bare hands, we could have a huge impact.”

It's my wish that this research may strengthen these women's case for support

Bernard Mbwele

VSO volunteer researcher

VSO/Maheder Haileselassie

We hope to be able to support more women like Meberete in future

The causes of pelvic organ prolapse – including child marriage, lack of access to family planning and inadequate maternal healthcare provision – are preventable. The condition is preventable. It’s a problem we can solve, by working together.

In the meantime, support means the world to each woman we are able to help, like Meberete:

“I look forward to a future where I will no longer be discriminated against by the people in the community, where I will be able to support myself and not rely on other people around me for help. A future where I will be able to take part in community events freely, without feeling like I am different from the rest.”

Find out more about our work in Ethiopia.