Dr. Catherine Hamlin in Addis Ababa, 2017 (Photo: Kajsa Övergaard)

The Right Livelihood Foundation mourns 2009 Laureate Dr. Catherine Hamlin, a champion for women’s health

News 19.03.2020

The Right Livelihood Foundation expresses its deepest condolences over the passing of Catherine Hamlin, a renowned Australian obstetrician and gynaecologist. Hamlin, who died at the age of 96, received the 2009 Right Livelihood Award for her tireless work of treating women with obstetric fistula in Ethiopia.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin in Addis Ababa, 2017 (Photo: Kajsa Övergaard)

She passed away on Wednesday, March 18, in her home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, according to the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation.

Hamlin and her late husband Reginald Hamlin pioneered surgical techniques to treat obstetric fistula, a condition arising from prolonged obstructed labour that leaves the affected woman incontinent of urine, with many of them also suffering from bowel incontinence

Born in Sydney in 1924, Hamlin left Australia together with her husband in 1959 in response to an advertisement to work as obstetricians/gynaecologists at a hospital in Addis Ababa.

Hamlin was horrified by the prevalence of obstetric fistula, which often made women with the condition live as social outcasts amidst the most miserable conditions. Obstetric fistula, formerly common throughout the world, is now almost non-existent in industrialised countries thanks to better obstetric care, however, it is still prevalent in low- and middle-income countries.

When the couple started their work in Ethiopia, there was little treatment available for the condition anywhere in the world, but the Hamlins developed surgical techniques, began to operate on their patients and eventually achieved a 93 percent success rate. 

As more and more women started arriving for treatment, the Hamlins realized the need to open their own hospital dedicated to treating obstetric fistula. In 1975, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital was opened. The hospital soon became a global centre of expertise and training in fistula repair. Additionally, five more regional hospital centres have also been opened across Ethiopia to make the treatment more widely accessible.

The Hamlins’ dedication and vision have allowed 60,000 women in Ethiopia to receive treatment over the past decades.

Hamlin also focused on the important area of fistula prevention with the establishment of the Hamlin Midwifery College in Addis Ababa. The midwives trained there are placed in rural health clinics around the country in order to prevent obstetric fistula in the first place, to raise the quality of care in childbirth generally and to lower the high maternal death rate.

Hamlin received the Right Livelihood Award in 2009 for “her fifty years dedicated to treating obstetric fistula patients, thereby restoring the health, hope and dignity of thousands of Africa’s poorest women.”

“Childbirth should be a joyful occasion, when a new baby enters the world. But it can go wrong,” Hamlin said in her acceptance speech in 2009. “There must be men and women of compassion and determination so that childbirth for all women can always be safe and babies and mothers saved – from death for the baby and for a life of a living death for the mother.”

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Catherine Hamlin,” said Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Foundation. “Countless lives in some of the most impoverished parts of the world have been transformed by her dedication and compassion. Thanks to her legacy, the work to eradicate obstetric fistula continues, improving the lives of thousands of women in the years to come.”

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