Minister Focuses Attention On Devastating Condition

April 22, 2009

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

March 24, 2009 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

Young women living in poverty with no control over their lives are vulnerable to a preventable medical condition that leaves them with stillborn babies and a body damaged by childbirth.


The Rev. Jill Wiley has been hired by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society to help bring the issue of obstetric fistula to the front burner of the church and the global community. Wiley attended the spring board meeting on March 20 to introduce herself and her work. She began her duties on March 16.


"This is a sleeper issue that doesn't exist in the United States because it was eradicated by C-sections almost 100 years ago," said Linda Bales, executive with the social action agency.


Millions live with condition

Obstetric fistula is a hole in the birth canal caused by prolonged labor without prompt medical intervention, according to the United Nations Population Fund, an international development agency that promotes the rights of everyone to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity.

A woman with the injury is left with chronic incontinence and in most cases a stillborn baby. The smell of leaking urine or feces or both is constant and humiliating, and often the woman is driven from her home and ostracized from society. Fistula can lead to ulcerations, kidney disease and nerve damage in the legs, Wiley explained.


The condition happens when a pregnant woman's pelvis is too underdeveloped for childbirth. Usually an underdeveloped pelvis occurs in young girls and those who are malnourished. It occurs disproportionally in Africa, Asia and parts of the Arab region, Wiley said. As many as 2 million women live with the condition, and 50,000 to 100,000 new cases develop each year.


A simple surgery for US$300 can repair the injury. The surgery has a success rate of 90 percent.


Wiley's position is being funded by a $62,000 grant from the United Nations Foundation. The Campaign to End Fistula is a program of the United Nations Population Fund based in New York City.

The Obama administration recently restored funding to the Population Fund, releasing $50 million for family planning, HIV prevention and improving maternal health, according to Bales. "It is like a breath of fresh air."

Campaign to End Fistula

Wiley's task for the next 12 months is to engage at least 10 United Methodist annual (regional) conference boards of church and society in the campaign. She will work closely with the chairpersons of the conference boards to assess interest and implement a strategy for action, Bales said (at left).

"United Methodists are good organizers," Wiley said. "Obstetric fistula is a devastating injury, and the stigma leaves women isolated.


"The goal of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society is to reduce the numbers of women and girls experiencing this reality with the hope of increasing treatment options for those currently living with fistula," she added.


Bales and Wiley agreed that a campaign engaging United Methodists must be grounded in theological, ethical and spiritual reflection as well as biblical understanding.


Wiley has been in ministry for more than 20 years, serving congregations in the United States and England. She was ordained by the British Methodist Church in 1993. She is a part-time minister at Christ Congregational Church UCC in Brockton, Mass. She is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas and a native of Iowa.


She noted that her background in theology and social justice, in serving local churches, and organizing people for common concerns makes this an ideal position for her.


"It is a calling," she said.


For more information go to, or contact Wiley at or Bales at