Groundbreaking initiative places women’s empowerment first, as Dr Catherine Hamlin’s ‘Joy Village’ turns 20 years old.

Woman learning farming


A ground-breaking initiative in Ethiopia is aiming to empower women who have faced years of social isolation and suffering due to devastating fistula injuries, and therefore struggle to make an income independently.

The Women’s Empowerment Program at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia’s Desta Mender (founded by pioneering Australian Dr Catherine Hamlin) is training survivors of fistula in sustainable vocational skills, including leadership and small-business guidance, ensuring they are empowered to live with choice and autonomy as they rebuild their lives.

The impact of fistula

“Fistula is a devastating internal injury affecting a woman’s birth canal and urinary tract or rectum caused by a prolonged and obstructed labour. It affects thousands of women during childbirth in rural and remote Ethiopia, who have little access to medical care or emergency cesarean deliveries” explains Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation CEO, Carolyn Hardy.

“They can spend days in agony, often falling unconscious, and in 93% of cases their baby is stillborn” she says.

On top of this heartbreak, the mother is left incontinent, trapped in a world of pain, shame and isolation from her community” says Hardy. 

After receiving surgical treatment for their fistula injuries at a Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia hospital, many women find re-entering their communities daunting. Some have spent years in hiding. 

Rebuilding women’s lives

Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia’s Women’s Empowerment Program invites those women who need it most, to take part in their three-month residency vocational training program,  to help these women better support themselves and their families, and play an active role in their communities.

“ I stayed with fistula for ten years. I was not able to stand and talk to people. I was not able to go to church like normal people. I didn’t go to market places”  says Mulu Girma*, Hamlin Women’s Empowerment Program Trainee. 

“I used to live in much sufferings.I have no job and one son. When we were invited to this program after being cured, I was so happy and do not have the words to express” she says.

“I want to open an inn in my village and sell food”says Girma.

Joy Village

Desta Mender (known as Joy Village in Amharic, the local Ethiopian language) was set up by pioneering Australian, Dr Catherine Hamlin, in 2002, to enable women receiving treatment for severe fistula injuries to continue to heal. 

Hamlin’s Rehabilitation and Reintegration Centre, based in Addis Ababa, has been providing  physiotherapy, counseling, life-skills and literacy and numeracy training to women,  for the last 20 years.

Berikti Tewelde, a pottery teacher at Desta Mender, trains women in some of these life skills, including how to utilise clay – a resource they can find in their local villages.

“They don’t need any capital to acquire this” says Tewelde. “I start them making a fuel-saving stove, as every woman is the one that cooks for the family.”

Tigist Aman, Desta Mender Manager believes the Women’s Empowerment Program will complement the work that is taking place at Desta Mender.

“The additional vocational training will create a complete healing process for women with childbirth injuries and enable them to rebuild their lives with confidence.” 

In the last two years, 425 women have benefited through the Women’s Empowerment Program with another 240 expected to join the program in 2023. 

25 October 2022

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