By: Habiba Cooper Diallo
Greetings everyone. I am so pleased to be here today, and so gratified to be the recipient of the Zonta, Young Women in Public Affairs Award. My name is Habiba Cooper Diallo and I am 17-years-old. Today, I am proud to say that my morality is defined by feminist values. My journey began 5 years ago after reading about Anafghat Ayouba in the Wall Street Journal.
This post contains excerpts from my acceptance speech for the Zonta Young Women in Public Affairs Award:
Anafghat was a young girl from Tarbiyat, Niger who suffered an obstetric fistula, arguably the most devastating affliction known to humanity. In 2007, she passed a way due to complications of an infection although her fistula had been cured.
Although her story may be sad, it is inspiring, for her legacy is not in vain. While she was one of the many victims of poverty, what’s more important is that she was a courageous and self-empowered young woman. Through the article I developed a spiritual bond with Anafghat. I said to myself, “what is this obstetric fistula that so silently ravages the lives of young women like Anafghat?”
I soon learned about the work of Dr. Catherine Hamlin, one of the first gynaecologist and obstetricians to dedicate her life to the treatment of fistula patients at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia. I was eventually led to Ethiopia where I had the opportunity to visit the hospital twice and meet with fistula patients. Yes, it was their affliction that drew me to the hospital; however, I did not want to learn about them through obstetric fistula. I wanted to know them through their humanity, the same way I was able to learn about Anafghat’s through hers-- her courage and her pursuit of academic excellence. When speaking with Asris and Emewedat (the two young women I met at the hospital), we talked about family, school, sports and their favourite activities.
To cut a long story short, when I returned to Canada from my trip to Ethiopia, I established WHOI, the Women’s Health Organization International in the spring of last year. WHOI was something that I had wanted to do 4 years prior, and my trip to the hospital propelled me forward. Our objective is to bring attention to the medical conditions and concerns of women of Africa and the African Diaspora and to offer sustainable solutions to these issues. Anafghat has helped to shape WHOI’s mandate.
Fistula is an indicator of how women are treated, especially poor women. This condition was once a problem among black slave women and poor white women in North America, but was eradicated in the early 20th century. Still, it remains a problem for women like Anafghat and Emewedat. Fistula is an indicator of the lack of equality between men and women, how women are perceived as less than and second-to- men in society. It’s really something for us to consider if we want to claim and uphold morality as a people. How do we treat those who are “equal” to us? What is our relationship to them? And how are we all implicated in this in dynamic? Fistula is an issue for all of us.
At present, WHOI does outreach and awareness work. Our most recent project is a screening of a documentary about obstetric fistula in Ethiopia produced by Engel Entertainment. It’s called A Walk to Beautiful, and it chronicles the stories of a few women who overcome obstetric fistula self-empower at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. It’s a very moving film and the majority of proceeds will go the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital for the treatment of fistula patients.
Before I leave you today, I’d like to say that WHOI, which was once a dream, has come to fruition. However, one must work at a dream so in that sense WHOI is a dream in progress and will be until Black or African-descended women can no longer attribute race, discrimination, or gender as a contributing factor to our health experiences; WHOI will be a dream in progress until our health experiences are no longer unique, but rather a shared, indiscrete aspect of society’s socio-medical fabric.
Habiba Cooper Diallo
I am a Canadian fistula advocate and blogger, and the founder of the Women’s Health Organization International, WHOI. I have been doing fistula awareness-building in Canada for the past 10 years. My work on fistula has led me to Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone. I have been featured in Forbes, the HuffPost, and UNFPA