Name: Alice Emasu
Location: Teso sub-region
What she does:
lShe heads the campaign against obsteric fistula in Teso sub-region
lShe has championed the struggle on better maternal health among the voiceless rural women
lShe mobilises women for medical surgery and awareness campaigns
Motivational statement: â€œMany of my former school mates passed away during child birth. Six of my former girlfriends died in this manner before completing Oâ€™level. I felt sad and sought ways to help in life,
By Daniel Edyegu
JANET Ikiyai may be aged only 28, but the mother of six has weathered disturbing experiences only a woman twice her age can talk of. Pregnancy at 14, leaking urine, marital abuse and an army of children to fend for, make up part of the list.
Despite the chain of troubles, Ikiyai wears a continuous smile while serving clients at her rickety mud-and-wattle retail shop at Obule Trading Centre, Gweri sub-county, Soroti district.
â€œI got pregnant at 14 years. When time for delivery came, I suffered two days of excruciating labour pains.
The traditional birth attendants finally pulled out the baby when they realised I could not deliver normally. A week later, urine started flowing uncontrollably. All my clothes were drenched and emitted a horrible stench.
â€œMy in-laws started mounting pressure on my husband (Augustino Osuku) to divorce me but he held on. Nobody ate or drank water from our home. We went through different traditional healers and witch doctors in vain,â€ Ikiyai recalls.
The year 2005 offered a ray of hope to the couple.
A team of women, led by Alice Emasu, 38, the executive director, The Re-Orientation and Rehabilitation of Teso Women for Development (TERREWODE), a local civil organisation, visited the village in the search of women â€˜leaking urine.â€™ The rest is history.
Through TERREWODE that Emasu established in 1991, the journalist-cum-social worker is spearheading the campaign against obsteric fistula in Teso sub-region. She has championed the struggle on better maternal health among the voiceless rural women. She mobilises women for medical surgery and awareness campaigns.
Inside her office adjacent to Soroti post office, two rows of plastic chairs are arranged face-to-face.
â€œWe had to go for plastic chairs considering the kind of people we attend to. When a patient enters, they fear to sit on the chair preferring the floor because of the dripping urine.
We persuade them to take a seat and shake hands. Itâ€™s the first step in breaking the ice,â€ Emasu says.
Ecwilili, as obstetric fistula is locally known in Ateso, is a defect caused by prolonged labour when the soft tissues of the pelvis are compressed between the descending babyâ€™s head and the motherâ€™s pelvic bone.
Without blood flow, the tissue dies, creating a hole between the motherâ€™s vagina and bladder or the vagina and rectum.
Often, the woman with obstetric fistula leaks a continuous stream of urine, feaces or both through the vagina.
The condition is more prevalent among child mothers due to undeveloped reproductive organs. About 200,000 women in Uganda are estimated to suffer fistula, with 20,000 new cases occurring annually.
For Emasu, the fistula campaign is a passion she traces to her school holidays in her home district, Kaberemaido.
â€œMany of my former school mates passed away during child birth. Six of my former girlfriends died in this manner before completing Oâ€™level. I felt sad and sought ways to help in life,â€ Emasu says.
When she joined active journalism as a features writer with the New Vision in 1999, Emasu took particular interest in issues affecting women. It is in the course of interacting with the women during her work that Emasu came face-to-face with the silent maternal killer â€“ obstetric fistula, a disease so widely hushed up that both patients and medical personnel feared to publicly talk about.
â€œChild mothers who survived death were living with fistula. Married patients were being brutalised by their husbands and abused by relatives, which often ended up in divorce.
Women suffering from the disease feared to come out as the patients emit a stench and are considered a bad omen to the clan,â€ she says. Emasu then decided she would do something about it.
In 2007, Emasu quit active journalism and went on to study a doctorate in women health with a specialty in obstetric fistula at the Washington University in the US.
As part of the course, she traversed the Great Lakes countries including Uganda, DR Congo, Tanzania and Kenya to research on how the various governments were handling the condition.
It is the additional wealth of experience she acquired during the course that has driven her campaign. Out of 64 sub-counties in Teso sub-region, the campaign has covered 32. At each parish, TERRUWODE has stationed a male and female volunteer to educate communities on maternal health and obsteric fistula in particular.
More than 600 women with fistula in the catchment area have been mobilised out of whom 300 were supported to access treatment and 50 socially reintegrated into their communities.
The healing process
Patients treated of the disease, Emasu says, undergo post-recovery counselling to enable them overcome trauma and carry on with their lives.
â€œThere are those who may have undergone violent relationships after suffering from fistula and want to take on legal action against their spouses while some who are divorced may want a share of property from their husbands. We guide them on the legal procedures and counsel the husbands on HIV/AIDS,â€ Emasu says.
The organisation also extends start up capital to former patients who need to undertake business after treatment. It is what Ikiyai used to open up her shop.
On the nastier side, others, especially those who suffered the disease for more than 20 years, are so overjoyed that they are emotionally overwhelmed.
â€œWe had a lady who had suffered fistula for over 20 years.
After treatment, she came to office and removed her clothes. She said she didnâ€™t want to see anything that reminded her of the suffering she underwent.
When she went back to her home in Oderai sub-county, she demolished the house where she was confined in isolation,â€ Emasu narrates.
At Akuya village in Gweri, Surubaberi Osuku, 70, is hopeful Emasuâ€™s campaign is beginning to yield fruits. â€œFifteen women in this village were treated of obstetric fistula due to her intervention. We used to waste a lot of money in witch doctors, thinking the disease was traditional. Not anymore,â€ Osuku says.
Help from outside
Day-in-day-out, Emasu continues to toe a bitten path with eyes focused on her ultimate goal â€” to see a country free from obstetric fistula. The International Development Fund (IDF) gave the organisation $130,000 for a three-year project that ends next year.
The United Nations Population Fund has also joined the struggle and the health ministry last year partnered with the organisation to draft better strategies to deal with the disease.
â€œIf only I could live to see an era where no woman dies of preventable childbirth complications and those with obstetric fistula just walk into the health unit and get treatment, I will die a happy woman,â€ Emasu says.
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Emasu gave up journalism to help women with fistula