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Friday, February 12, 2010

Fourth Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights

Teshome Woldemedhin is Youth and Gender Advisor for EngenderHealth in Ethiopia. Here, he shares his perspective on the Fourth Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights, which has been held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week.

The room was abuzz after Ethiopia's president, Girma Woldegiorgis, made the opening remarks at the Fourth Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights, getting things off to a promising start. The president called for increased access to sexual and reproductive health care for the poorest and most vulnerable, signaling the kind of political will that we need more of from our leaders. All too often, as Dr. Kebede Kassa of the Social Affairs Department of the Africa Union Commission later noted, "Political will is a scarce commodity."

Approximately 1,000 people are attending the conference from across Africa and elsewhere. I'm glad to see ministers of health from several countries in attendance, as well as high-ranking officers from the International Planned Parenthood Federation, World Health Organization, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS, and other organizations.

In my opinion, some of the most valued participants are the youth EngenderHealth sponsored to attend--six young women and six young men ages 18-24, from our university project. This initiative works with universities and youth clubs and focuses on improving the sexual and reproductive health of youth by raising awareness, improving services at health clinics, and reducing gender-based violence. These 12 young people, who were also involved in planning the conference, can personally testify to the critical issues that African youth face.

I moderated a panel session on emerging issues in the area of youth's sexual and reproductive health. Some of the key issues raised included the vulnerability of young girls and the need to get young people more involved in advocating for better sexual and reproductive health services.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was on "South-to-South" exchange: the importance of developing countries' sharing experiences and lessons learned. I think this kind of learning and partnership is one of the key outcomes of these kinds of gatherings. Instead of working on parallel tracks, we can all learn from each other. Identifying those strategies that are the most effective, then transferring and expanding upon them, can lead to smarter HIV prevention that better meets the needs of those most vulnerable.

The open dialogue of this conference is inspiring and served as yet another humbling reminder of why EngenderHealth's work in all areas of reproductive health is so vital--in Ethiopia and beyond.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fistula in the Congo: A Response to Nick Kristof's Feb. 7 Column

It’s shocking what’s happening every day in the D.R. Congo. The sexual violence is shattering to both women and their communities. But people like Dr. Mukwege prove that we are not powerless and something can be done about it. It’s so important to support health facilities like Panzi Hospital and doctors like Denis Mukwege—who are beacons of light in a tremendously bleak environment.

EngenderHealth supports Panzi Hospital and another hospital in the Congo, HEAL Africa, through the Fistula Care project, funded by USAID. These two facilities are centers of excellence for fistula repair, drawing women from all over the country and region in need of treatment.

With USAID support, doctors and nurses at Panzi and HEAL Africa have been trained to strengthen maternal health and fistula repair services—dedicated, local professionals who will be there for the long haul. In addition, the project ensures that women have transportation to the hospital for treatment and helps them reintegrate back into their communities once they have had surgery.

Obstetric fistula also occurs when women can’t access timely emergency obstetric care—namely, cesarean sections—during long or obstructed labors. With better maternal health care, obstetric fistula cases (which still make up the majority of fistula cases in the Congo) could be averted altogether. To prevent such fistula cases in Congo and elsewhere, we work with doctors, nurses, and midwives to help them better manage complicated pregnancies and births. At the community level, the project helps rural health workers refer pregnant women with complications to hospitals that can provide comprehensive care.

Strengthening health systems by building on existing resources is the best way to both treat women with fistula and prevent new obstetric fistulas cases. And a holistic approach that improves fistula prevention—by improving maternal health care and reducing sexual violence—is crucial. In terms of providing surgical repair, it’s important to keep in mind that the vast majority of fistula surgeons live and work in the developing world. Seeing fistula cases on a daily basis, local health providers should be supported to treat and prevent fistula. It makes sense to enhance the capacity of in-country health care professionals like Dr. Mukwege who can make lasting changes, both in their country’s health system and in the lives of women and their families.

Bethany Cole
Senior Program Associate

(This post appeared February 11 as a comment in response to Nick Kristof's column in the New York Times.)