The Women Inspiration Series: Dr Catherine Hamlin

This article was written by Zenith via UN Volunteers

Chapter 4 – Dr Catherine Hamlin (Australia)

In this series, we shift our focus to another continent and country of its own – Australia. It is common for people to want to achieve comfort and stability in our lives and one of the easiest way to do it, is to live in a country of peace and stability. However in this series, we are going to hear the story of a woman who decided to dedicate her life to the ‘restoration of women’s dignity and health’ in Ethiopia.

Dr Hamlin at Fitsula Hospital

Catherine Halim and her late-husband Reginald are both physicians and they arrived in Ethiopia in 1959 to establish a midwifery school and they expected to return to Australia in 2 years time. But never did she expect that today, in 2014, she is still there, continuing the work that they began in their youth – giving young women of Ethiopia a second chance at life by repairing fistulas. They have opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974 and have since treated more than 35,000 women.

Obstetric fistula is a degrading condition in which women who suffer traumatising labours are left incontinent and often ostracized by their community. Fistula patients are ashamed of their injuries and are often ostracized by their village communities, living alone and hiding from others, which contributes to the lack of awareness.

However, Catherine goes beyond saving the women from fistula, she also empowers recovering fistula patients to help in the treatment of others. Mahabouba Muhammad was sold at age 13 to be the second wife of a 60 year old man. She became pregnant and delivered by herself in the bush where she suffered a severe fistula. Villagers believed Mahabouba to be cursed and left her for the hyenas. But she fought them off and due to nerve damage from labour that left her unable to walk, she crawled for miles to get help. After undergoing the surgery at Dr Hamlin’s hospital, she is now a nurse’s aide at the hospital.

Mamitu Gashe, who helped doctors during her recovery, was soon recognized as a first-rate talent. She was illiterate but learnt to perform complex fistula repairs and because the hospital does so many, has now become one of the world’s experts in fistula surgery. She also often trains distinguished professors of obstetrics from around the world who come to the hospital for training in fistula repair.

At her 90th birthday party this year, former patients cheered as she blew out 90 candles on her cake. Her son, Richard, referring to the patients she has helped, declared: “Catherine has one son and 35,000 daughters.” Giving the crowd a pep talk about the need for a big push to improve the world’s maternal care, “we have to eradicate Ethiopia of this awful thing that’s happening to women: suffering, untold suffering, in the countryside,” she said, “I leave this with you to do in the future, to carry on.”

A woman, who could have well lived happily ever after in Australia and lead a comfortable life, dedicated her life to giving a second chance at living with dignity for the women in Ethiopia. This story shows us that one need not be extremely talented or gifted, but knowing how to tap on your skills and capabilities and be willing to move out of comfort zone, to bring about a change to others’ lives. Nothing is impossible, in the face of strong resolve fused with a dosage of love and care. 

Written by Zenith Chua, UN Volunteers

About Author

Zenith is in her senior year at Singapore Management University, majoring in strategic management and organizational behavior & human resources. Beyond school, she learns from various MOOCs (massive open online courses), so as to satisfy her seemingly ever growing desire for knowledge. Setting academics apart, she is an active UN Volunteer with various NGOs around the world, as well as a dragonboat paddler. 

Firmly driven by her life motto, "To Live, Not Just Exist", Zenith is always on the move for new ideas and opportunities to fulfill her not-so-humble ambition of changing the world to be a better place for all.


NY TIMES: This Doctor is Still Calling

GUARDIAN: Fistula Women Ethiopia

Most Inspiring Person of the Year 2007: Dr Catherine Hamlin

Women Who Inspire


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