21st Century Leprosy

On March 23rd of 2012 The Women’s Health Organization International (WHOI) was officially founded by fifteen-year-old Habiba Cooper Diallo of Toronto, Canada with a goal to advocate for and empower women suffering from obstetric fistula. Haling from Nova Scotia, Habiba Cooper Diallo came to the New York College Experience to major in Medical Science and minor in International Relations. Why, you ask? To acquire the skills to run her non-profit (Isn’t everybody?) Many of us don’t know what obstetric fistula is but it affects thousands of young women, often under sixteen, and they are isolated and shunned like lepers of the 21st century. “It [obstetric fistula] occurs when the baby, in an attempt to leave the mother’s birth canal pushed on her internal organs, usually her bladder or rectum, sometimes both, depending on the kind of fistula. In doing so he or she punctures one or both of these organs and that means she’s incontinent thus leaking urine and/or feces, depending on the organs affected at birth,” says Habiba. The babies are usually stillborn because as the baby makes its way out of the birth canal the uterine artery is compressed and his or her oxygen supply is cut off. This unknown illness gives the general public an excuse to ostracize these women for simply not having access to the necessary information, facilities and resources.

When asked what obstetric fistula means to her, the corners of her mouth curve upward with excitement as she said “It means a lot to me as a woman, growing and evolving into my womanhood, and as well being a woman of color, a black woman with direct ties to the continent of Africa where this illness is extremely prevalent.”  It’s what comes to mind when you think about yourself and seeing that in something else that gives you drive, passion and a cause.

She first heard of the illness by reading about Anafghat Ayouba from Niger. Anafgat was eleven when she gave birth and developed obstetric fistula and asked her father to let her pursue an education and not to let it happen to her younger sister. Anafhgat was so determined to overcome her illness and advocate for women in her community, disseminate education on the issue, and speak to locals about it she visited the only obstetric fistula hospital in the world, in Ethiopia. When asked on how the visit to the hospital changed her goals as an obstetric fistula activist she responds: “I did feel like I was on the right track but I think definitely it was time to step up my game and do more.”  In the fistula hospital in Ethiopia she got to talk to the girls there and she made it a point to share as much about herself as they were willing to share about themselves. “So, I didn’t just wanted to get to know them through their illness, although that was important, but more so I wanted to get to know them though their humanity, how they are as human beings” she expresses.  Their humanity and their hope gave Habiba that push she needed to turn her idea into a reality.

For Habiba, it’s her ties to Africa and her womanhood that lead her to embark on such a journey:  founding an organization. There are no books on how to found your own non-profit [trust us, we’ve searched], so how can a fifteen-year old just come up with one in three months? Habiba Cooper Diallo did have some family assistance: “My mom, she is an expert and a scholar, not particularly in the operation of non-profit organizations but she is a historian and had prior experience with some of these things so she was able to guide me and really help me along.” She describes her experience in dealing with her local registry in order to obtain legal status as a “very daunting process.”

The non-profit’s slogan is “The Women’s Health Organization International, empowering women through health. Habiba describes the non-profit’s philosophy” “In our mandate there is this emphasis about empowering women. The key aspect of empowering women is actually about self-empowerment. So, the whole idea that WHOI will provide certain resources and inspire women at the end of the day it will be up to them to take the challenge and empower themselves. So, we’re encouraging self-empowerment, we’ re encouraging these women to empower themselves and that is the central point of our mandate. ”

“I knew that I had the ability to do that and I had to do something with that ability.”

– Habiba Cooper Diallo

by Michelle Santiago

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