World-renowned Australian gynecologist Catherine Hamlin has been helping Ethiopian women suffering the pain and shame of pregnancy complications for more than 50 years. But her life-changing work is under pressure from the very charity she established — by a hardline interpretation of Christianity.
With her late husband, New Zealander Dr. Reg Hamlin, Catherine co-founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1973, the world’s only medical center dedicated exclusively to providing free obstetric fistula repair surgery to poor women suffering from childbirth injuries. Now 87 years old, she still works in the hospital.
But Hamlin says she’s deeply hurt by an executive decision to only accept donating partners with Christian ideologies.
Problems started when Dr Hamlin wrote that what had motivated her and her husband to found their hospital was a Christian sense of good will.
“It was only written to record how we started, and how we had continued with the work, and our work is to welcome anyone to the hospital,” Dr Hamlin said.
“[The charity] is nothing to do with our faith, it is to do with the love that we have for these patients.”
“This is not the way we run this hospital,” Dr Hamlin said. ”My staff come from many religions, as do our patients.”
However, the executive of the charity which funds the hospital took Dr Hamlin’s declaration of her faith against her wishes as fuel to tell their donors that they must live by a Christian ethos to continue as partners of the charity. Three major funders in Europe are secular and Hamlin says she is heartbroken at the threat to her life’s work.
“And this has broken my heart,” she says, “and I feel every time I see a woman, ‘How could they do this to me? How could they do this to this poor woman?’”
Hamlin says that because of the rift between her team in Ethiopia and the major arm of the charity in Australia, the hospital has not received any money for seven months. The Australian charity arm has, she says, stopped fundraising because of the rift. It has also called for her son, Richard, to ‘toe the line’ with their insistence on ‘Christian ethos’ or resign. The conservative Christian lobby in Australia stands accused of trying to take over the work for their own ends in anticipation of Catherine’s death or disability.
Says Art director Lucy Perry, who has worked pro-bono for Hamlin for the past seven years:
“I just think these white Christian corporate boys here in their shiny suits have lost sight of who we work for, and it’s destitute Ethiopian women with tragic childbirth injuries.”
Watch a film about five Ethiopian women whose lives have been devastated by obstetric fistula and the difficult journey they undertake to reach the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital:
Photo of doctors at the Addis Ababa hospital from Samuel M. Gebru via flickr