A new film by Emmy winning film maker Lisa Russell documenting how mobile technology is facilitating fistula treatment in Tanzania had its premiere at the historic Zanzibar International Film Festival—ZIFF, East Africa’s largest film and music gathering, in July. The film, produced with support by UNFPA and the Campaign to End Fistula, was chosen to be part of ZIFF’s Women’s Panorama program which brings select films to screen in the villages.
The documentary highlights an innovative project at CCBRT—a rehabilitation hospital located in Dar es Salaam that provides fistula repair services among other things in Tanzania. At the end of 2009, CCBRT began a pilot scheme using Vodacom’s M-PESA banking system to send money via mobile phones to women in need of fistula surgery.
Community based doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and traditional midwives from 15 regions in Tanzania make up the “ambassadors,” who identify fistula patients and use M-PESA to receive money and pay for their transportation to the hospital. Once at the hospital, the patients receive free admission, food and care.
Thanks to the project, there was a 65 per cent increase in the number of women and girls receiving fistula treatment in the center since 2009.
According to specialists, mobile phone technology has the power to greatly improve maternal health. “Its potential is only just starting to reach women with obstetric fistula, who often live in remote areas, in conditions of extreme poverty,” said the UNFPA Representative in the country, Ms. Julitta Onabanjo.
More often than not, in rural areas, it is difficult to access a skilled health care provider to get emergency care when childbirth complications arise or treatment in case of disabilities. Roads and transportation are often rudimentary, and hospitals and health centres are spread over wide distances.
“Women might have to travel for many hours—even days—by bus, donkey cart or on foot to reach a hospital or medical center. It is often too late for a safe delivery by the time they get there. Most often, they simply don’t have the resources to seek treatment when they develop a condition like fistula,” Ms. Onabanjo explained.
“One of the more tragic situations I’ve encountered in my filming is meeting women living in very rural areas who desperately need a fistula repair surgery but cannot afford the transport costs,” said Russell who has also filmed fistula programs in Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
“Mobile phone technology has the ability to revolutionize women’s access to fistula treatment programs. It was incredibly inspiring to be able to document such a hopeful and positive story in Tanzania, and we are all excited that the film is premiering in the region.” the film maker added.
For Gillian Slinger, UNFPA Coordinator of the global Campaign to End Fistula, women and girls living in rural areas are not only the most difficult to reach, but also the hardest hit by poverty.
“They often have little access to education, and less decisional power. Even in countries where national legislation exists to ensure women’s rights, for many reasons, this may be less respected the farther you go from the capital.
“Cultural traditions can further perpetuate inequities and gender issues, with crucial birthing decisions often made by the husband or mother-in-law, who may favor traditional practices, like early marriages and home deliveries.
“We hope the film will be used to share the message with practitioners around the world so that they can be inspired to replicate this good practice and develop new ideas about mobile phone use to reach women and girls with fistula in the future, and to improve maternal health,” Ms. Slinger added.
Watch the video preview: Mobile Phones + Fistula – What’s Next?
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The report, recently released by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, calls for systematic notification of fistula cases and the creation of national registers to ensure proper care, follow up and support for all fistula patients.