A Walk to Beautiful

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: May 13, 2008

A difficult journey that begins in hopelessness and shame for thousands of women in Ethiopia ends in a productive new life in this award-winning documentary airing in its television premier on NOVA. Filmed in a starkly beautiful landscape, the film juxtaposes the isolated lives of village women who are outcasts because of their medical condition, with the faraway hospital that offers a miracle after a long and arduous trek—a "walk to beautiful."

The feature-length version of this film took top honors at the 2007 International Documentary Association Awards Competition, where it was named Best Feature Documentary. It also won the People's Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Starz Denver Film Festival, the Audience Award at both the San Francisco and St. Louis international film festivals, and the Best Human Rights Film Award at the International Documentary Festival of Barcelona. [Hear about the making of the film from producer Mary Olive Smith.]

The film tells the personal stories of rural women who make their way to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, seeking treatment for obstetric fistula, a life-shattering complication of childbirth that was once common in the pre-industrial United States but that is now relegated to the poorest regions of the world. (For more on disparities in women's health worldwide, see Two Worlds.)

Women with small pelvises, whether through malnutrition, overwork, or because they married too young, are most at risk, since there is often not room for the baby to emerge during birth. The result can be an obstructed labor that may last up to 10 days, a stillborn child, and a trauma-induced hole, or fistula, in the vaginal wall that produces chronic incontinence. (For more information, go to Anatomy of Childbirth.)

The women profiled in "A Walk to Beautiful" are treated as virtual lepers in their villages, where they are shunned by family and made to live alone. One women admits to contemplating suicide.

Through chance they learn that there are other women who share their affliction, and that the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital exists to help them—if they can manage to walk for hours to the nearest road, find public transport to the capital, and then search out the hospital in a strange and forbidding city. Once there, they enter a haven that they never imagined, surrounded by women like themselves and a medical staff of Western and African doctors who treat them like human beings, not outcasts.

The story of this experience is told through the women's own eyes and voices. There is Ayehu, 25, living in a makeshift shack behind her mother's house where she has hidden for four years. Almaz, also in her 20s, has suffered from a double fistula for three years. For Wubete, 17, early marriage and her small physical stature left her with bladder damage that makes her case especially difficult.

"My husband and I came to Ethiopia in 1959," says the hospital's cofounder, Dr. Catherine Hamlin, who is from Australia. "The previous gynecologist that we replaced said to my husband, 'The fistula patients will break your hearts.'"

And so they did. Dr. Hamlin's husband died in 1993. But she is still there. (Read a wrenching yet hopeful interview with Dr. Hamlin.)

Program Transcript
Program Credits

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Twenty-five-year-old Ayehu lived like a pariah for four years before learning about the surgery that could restore her life. To see Ayehu's moving story, watch the program.

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© | Created March 2008