Terefa is fourteen years old. She lives in a small village in Africa, more than 200 km from the country’s capital. She is the sixth child in a family of eight children and has never been to school. Her father, a farmer, did not have enough money to send all of his children to the village school. The older children—two boys—thus benefited from schooling, while Terefa stayed at home to help her parents to survive. Her chores were to gather firewood, draw water and help work the fields.
When she was thirteen, her father married her to one of his friends who was a little better off. Terefa could only accept this marriage and, a few months later, she became pregnant. Throughout her pregnancy she continued working, as if nothing had changed. The closest antenatal clinic was a few dozen kilometres from her house, but she didn’t go to it because she didn’t have money to pay for transport. Also, everyone in the village said that pregnancy was not an illness and that the other women had always given birth without any problems, so why shouldn’t she?
Terefa’s husband and mother-in-law let the village traditional birth attendant know when labour started. The contractions became more and more violent, and more and more painful, but the baby did not seem to want to come out. Terefa saw the sun rise and set three times. She was exhausted by the long ordeal. The village birth attendant tried to speed up events, first with herbal potions, then by inserting various substances into the vagina and, finally, by making incisions with a rusty knife in her vagina, but nothing worked.
The village elders then met to take a decision: Terefa had to be sent to the health centre. It took several hours to collect the necessary money, transport Terefa in a cart to reach the road and find a driver to take her to the town. Terefa was afraid, for she knew no one there and wondered how she, a simple peasant, would be received.
At the health centre she was examined by a midwife. The midwife was not happy that Terefa had come so late and told her that the baby was dead, but that an operation was required. As the doctor who performed caesarean sections was away for several days for a training course, she had to go to another hospital.
After the operation, Terefa realized that she couldn’t retain her urine. Back at the village she was ashamed because she had lost her child, was constantly wet and continually gave off the smell of urine. Seeing that the situation did not improve, her husband rejected her and chose another wife and, little by little, the entire village turned its back on her.
Since then Terefa and her mother have lived in a tent at the edge of the village. The two women subsist on charity, but Terefa’s health is becoming a little more precarious every day. No one knows how much longer she will survive.
Originally published in Obstetric Fistula by World Health Organization, Department of Making Pregnancy Safer