Promoting women’s rights in Uganda

Alice Emasu Seruyange (right), MSW ’10, has built the first hospital in Uganda specializing in treating obstetric fistulas. Here she is with a fistula survivor.

When Alice Emasu Seruyange, MSW ’10, first met L. Lewis Wall at WashU in 2009, she revealed her dream of building a fistula hospital in her home country of Uganda.

“It can be done,” Wall told her. But as a professor of sociocultural anthropology in Arts & Sciences and of obstetrics and gynecology at the School of Medicine, Wall warned Emasu that it would take about 10 years and $2 million to build.

“And, by golly, here we are,” Wall says. Today, Emasu is spearheading construction of the Specialized Women’s Hospital in Soroti, Eastern Region, Uganda. The hospital is owned by Emasu’s nonprofit, TERREWODE. Its official opening was Aug. 16, 2019, but the hospital began providing services in July.

This long-held dream of Emasu’s formed after a decades-long quest in Uganda to eliminate obstetric fistula, a hole that forms near the vagina after prolonged obstructed labor. The condition can result in long-term health issues and, in some cases, death.

Emasu first learned of the condition when she was 18 years old, after several of her girlfriends died. The residents of her home village of Bululu were not initially forthcoming about the cause of their deaths due to heavy stigmatization tied to the condition, but Emasu later discovered that they had died of obstetric fistula. “When I found out, I felt totally shattered, and I started asking questions,” Emasu says.

In 1999, Emasu founded The Association for the Rehabilitation and Re-orientation of Women for Development (TERREWODE), headquartered in Soroti. The nonprofit organization uses holistic methods for raising awareness of fistula, treating the condition and educating others to prevent it.

Meeting roadblocks while developing the nonprofit, Emasu chose to pursue her master’s degree in social work in the United States, a country she learned has very low fistula rates.

Her studies at WashU’s Brown School prepared her for the process of resources mobilization and building a hospital from scratch. At
WashU, Emasu established relationships with both organizations and individuals who were instrumental to the evolution of the hospital.

Among her collaborators is Wall, who has visited Uganda several times since Emasu graduated to assist in the development of the hospital. “She has gradually emerged as the leading advocate for women with these injuries in Uganda,” Wall says.

Theresa Spitznagle, professor of physical therapy at WashU, is the vice chair of the Worldwide Fistula Fund, a nonprofit organization founded by Wall in 1995. The organization is providing a five-year budgeted grant to TERREWODE to stabilize the hospital’s operating budget.

“I can see her vision, and I can see her magnitude,” Spitznagle says. “Emasu is a charismatic woman who is asking the community what they want, and it’s driving her decision-making on what [the hospital is] producing.” Services will include treatment, surgical correction and rehabilitation of obstetric fistula.

“I am seeing what I dreamt over two decades ago becoming true with this hospital now being in place,” Emasu says.

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