In Darfur, one husband sticks by his wife despite society's pressure

Women with postchildbirth complications are often ostracized by their own families, but one man took his wife through a war zone to get her treatment.

Nobody would have blamed Omar Abdullah Al Bakar for divorcing his wife last year in his distant village in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.

Mr. Bakar's own family was insisting on it, in fact, after his wife miscarried a child, and suffered a postnatal condition that left her unable to control her bladder.

But Mr. Al Bakar – who is blind – took the cultural road less traveled. He took his wife, Mecca Mohammad Ibrahim, to get help, by donkey cart and car, across war zones, losing most of his possessions in the process, but keeping his small family unit intact.

"This is my wife," he says, sitting on a cot under an acacia tree in the dusty back yard of the Saudi Maternity Hospital here in the town of Al-Fasher, where he and his wife and two sons have lived for almost a year awaiting treatment. "I've had a good life with her, and I need her so we can together raise my sons."

Stories like Omar Abdullah's are a rare exception to the rule in Darfur, where the interests of families and the production of heirs take precedence over those of women. Ostracism of sick women in Darfur is common.

Consider the entire class of 82 student midwives at the Al-Fasher School of Midwifery. All are former patients of fistula, the same injury as Omar's wife, and one that is sadly common in Darfur, where traditions dictate early marriage, and maternal health facilities are few. This makes Omar Abdullah all the more remarkable, and a kind of Darfuri role model for male commitment and dedication. The Al-Fasher School of Midwifery, itself a remarkable institution in a society where women's education is discouraged, is funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). [Editor's note: The previous version did not include how the Al-Fasher School of Midwifery is funded.]

But if Omar's choice is rare, it may be because, as a disabled man, he is as dependent on his wife for survival as she is on him for stability and societal acceptance.

"Fistula patients are often not accepted by their own families or neighbors, and even in hospitals, it is only doctors who deal with them," says Dr. Tahir Fasher, a surgeon at Saudi Maternity Hospital, which is funded by UNFPA. "Even after they are treated, some don't like to go back home, because of how they are treated." [Editor's note: The previous version did not include how the Al-Fasher School of Midwifery is funded.]

Omar Abdullah's moment of truth came on May 9, 2006, when his wife went into labor. The baby died, and Mecca suffered incontinence after that.

Omar's family stopped eating food cooked by Mecca, and insisted that she eat elsewhere, because of the persistent smell that followed her. Nobody in Omar's village had ever had fistula before, but Omar decided to take his wife to Al-Fasher to see if the condition could be treated.

"It's only [100 miles] from Kabkabya to Al-Fasher, so it should only be an hour's drive," says Omar. But instead, the journey took three days, as the rainy season turned the sandy tracks into slush, and as armed bandits targeted Omar's car, stealing everything his small family had. "They took all our belongings, except money that Mecca tied to her body, under her dress."

Once the family reached Al Fasher, Mecca waited four months to receive surgical treatment. But even at the Saudi Hospital, there was a kind of ostracism for fistula patients. Complaints from other patients, who had come to give birth, forced doctors to move fistula patients out into the open dusty field behind the hospital.

Nearly a year after leaving his village, Omar is now preparing to return home, with his wife and sons. She is well now, he says, and his family has sheepishly agreed that she can return home "if she is OK."

"They didn't help us in all those months, and neither did her family," says Omar, with no hint of bitterness. "I think this is just fate, for her and for my family. I don't have any bad thing in my heart for my family."

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