Important work: Catherine Hamlin

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Important work: Catherine Hamlin

The Australian doctor has worked all her life with women at her fistula hospital in Ethiopia. This year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Sofi Lundin meets her.


© Lucy Perry

Catherine Hamlin looks determined and friendly. She walks with a walking stick and she says hello to everyone she meets. She was 90 this year; and the hospital in Addis Ababa that she opened with her husband Reginald was 40 this year.

In 1959, Hamlin moved from Australia to Ethiopia to start a school to train midwives (nurses to help women have babies). A few days after she started working at the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital in Addis Ababa, she and Reginald met a 17-year-old girl with serious problems after having a baby.

She was in a lot of pain at the end of her pregnancy. The baby was born dead in her village. She had continuous urine leakage problems. And her husband left her.

When they met this girl, the Hamlins' life changed. They started the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital to provide free treatment to all.

Fistula is a serious disease which affects two million women after pregnancy worldwide. Women and girls get it if the baby’s head is too big, or the mother’s pelvis is too small or because the baby is in a difficult position. Most women who suffer from fistula live in countries with not enough healthcare.

‘Pregnant women in the West get the help they need,’ says Hamlin. ‘If there are problems they can have a Caesarean. In the Ethiopian villages you have to walk for an average of two days to get to the nearest clinic. Many women die before they arrive at the hospital. It is very sad. We need to stop fistulas – we need to prevent them.’

Hamlin and her husband had planned to return to Australia after three years in Ethiopia, but they stayed. In 1974 they opened the country’s first, and the world’s second, fistula hospital. It has now treated more than 40,000 women. Women walk a long way to get here - from Eritrea and Somalia. There are never empty beds.

‘My husband Reg wanted to help everyone,’ Hamlin says. Reg died in 1993. ‘How can you say no to someone who is so desperate for help?’

This year, Hamlin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. But she says that she has ‘done nothing remarkable’. But it hasn’t always been easy. When the hospital opened in 1974, it was the end of the Ethiopian monarchy. The next 20 years were unstable. The communist military junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam controlled the country. The state took control of all private possessions. They killed anyone they thought might be anti-communist. Hamlin was afraid she could lose the hospital and women could die.

In May 1991, there was fighting outside the hospital. Hamlin was at home, when the telephone suddenly rang. She got up off the sofa and went to answer the phone. And a bullet came in through the roof and hit a cushion where she had been sitting. ‘That conversation saved my life. God was with me in difficult times,’ she says. But she was sure that no-one hated her personally.

Now there are five regional fistula centres in Ethiopia. The organization Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia started them with help from the authorities. 90 per cent of the population lives in the countryside, but 90 per cent of Ethiopia’s gynaecologists work in the city, or privately.

‘In 2007 the organization started a school to train midwives,’ says Feven Haddis, deputy CEO of the hospital. ‘The students come from schools in the villages. We want them to go back to their village to work after training. But this is difficult: not many doctors and trained health carers stay in the villages. They move to the large towns or other countries.’

Hamlin did operations every day until her 90th birthday in January. Now she wants to have a break and do what she likes best: reading, knitting, gardening – and hugging her patients.

Sofi Lundin is a Swedish freelance photographer and journalist, based in Oslo.

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