Obstetric Fistula

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A Fistula Ward in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

My first long-term research project concentrated on Ethiopia and examined the sociocultural dimensions of obstetric fistula, a maternal childbirth injury that leads to chronic incontinence. Obstetric fistula affects about one million women across the Global South, most of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Between 2008 and 2010, I conducted ethnographic research at two fistula repair and rehabilitation centers in Ethiopia on the bodily, political, religious, and social repercussions of obstetric fistula and its treatment.

This work culminated in several journal articles and my first book, Beyond Surgery: Injury, Healing, and Religion at an Ethiopian Hospital (Chicago: 2017). Beyond Surgery poses questions of far-reaching significance for anthropology, medicine, and global humanitarian work: How do individuals and communities respond to bodily injury in their midst? What kind of work do narratives about cultural “failure” perform and what are their consequences? And what happens when biomedical treatment fails to have the desired effects and produces only partially healed subjects? The book takes Ethiopian women’s encounters with fistula and their hospitalization as an occasion to delve into deeper reflections on the intimate and collective experience of physical affliction, the function of hospitals as spaces of both healing and reform, and the equivocal role of biomedicine as a technological imaginary.

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