Natalie Imbruglia rocks to new passion: Ending fistula

PHOTO: Natalie Imbruglia rocks to new passion: Ending fistula

WASHINGTON - Australian pop star Natalie Imbruglia doesn't mean to leave you with the wrong impression.

She loves making music and has returned to acting, but the "Torn" singer with millions of record sales under her belt has a more rewarding mission these days: helping women recover from a haunting affliction that is all but eradicated in the West, yet affects millions across Africa and Asia.

"I'm very passionate about it," Imbruglia told AFP about her role as spokeswoman for the UN Campaign to End Fistula, a childbearing injury that often results in the loss of the baby and leaves women shunned.

"I intend to continue my creative endeavours. I'm songwriting at the moment, in Los Angeles, and working on some other projects," she said. "But most importantly, we're planning a trip to Africa" and possibly India and elsewhere.

Obstetric fistula is a hole in the birth canal which develops during a prolonged and obstructed labor. It results in chronic incontinence, and the foul smell of leaking urine and feces often drives away husbands and shatters women's lives.

"It was like dying everyday," Sarah Omega, who was raped at 19 and then suffered with fistula for nine years, told a United Nations economic council meeting in 2009 that Imbruglia also addressed.

While it is largely preventable and easily treated, up to 100,000 new cases develop annually, the UN estimates. Some say the number is far higher.

Treatment costs about US$300 (S$375), but many poor women can't afford the operation. Others are never told treatment is available for fistula.

Imbruglia is the most high-profile star committed to stamping out the ailment.

"It just jumped out to me as a woman, and the fact that they didn't seem to have anybody speaking for them," Imbruglia said in Washington, where she attended a UN Population Fund forum.

The quiet crisis caught her eye back in 2005, when friend Richard Branson, the British business tycoon who heads Virgin Group, urged Imbruglia to harness her fame into activism.

She had been basking in superstardom after her 1997 debut album "Left of the Middle" was a global smash. The stunning star also became one of the faces for for cosmetics giant L'Oreal, and her image was plastered across gossip magazines.

She would soon put a hold on the glamour, becoming an ambassador with the Virgin Unite humanitarian campaign and heading to Africa.

"The kind of things that you see there, it becomes personal," she said.

She visited villages and hospitals in Ethiopia, broke bread with religious leaders in Nigeria, and met countless women suffering from fistula's indignity.

At the Washington forum, a young African woman named Helena, her smile as wide as the stage, approached Imbruglia and told her of how she reclaimed her own life once she had the operation to repair her fistula.

The singer lit up, and they hugged at length.

"You're doing a good job," the woman whispered. "So good."

Celebrity activists are a dime a dozen, and large-scale issues such as poverty reduction and environmental protection bring out the big guns like U2 frontman Bono.

But few have braved such personally unpleasant issues as the secretion of human waste, troubles with reproduction and the specter of rape, "all things that people are conditioned to turn away from," said Heidi Breeze-Harris, founder of non-governmental group One By One, which works to end fistula.

But Imbruglia has not shied away, leading UN Population Fund chief Babatunde Osotimehin to hail her "extraordinary work to fight this terrible childbirth condition."

"Her travels across the globe and her efforts to raise money to support fistula rehabilitation centers and training for community educators are essential in bringing help and needed health care to women and girls," he told AFP.

The taboo on speaking about the condition in Africa has begun to lift too, said Imbruglia, particularly among the very people whose involvement is crucial in improving women's health in small, poor communities: men.

"Nurses in the hospital told me, 'You have to speak to the emirs, it's not just about the government. If you don't have their ear and if they're not on side, the women won't listen, the men won't listen,'" she recalled of one of her trips to Africa.

"So of course we set up the meeting with the emir of Katsina (in Nigeria), and he was incredibly supportive."

Imbruglia, who starred on Australian soap opera "Neighbours" as a teenager, reprised her acting career in 2003 with a role in spy spoof "Johnny English."

In 2009, she starred in "Closed for Winter," and last year was a judge on Australia's "X Factor" reality show.

But asked if she gets the same satisfaction from singing and acting as she does helping women, her big eyes quickly grew moist.

"No," she admitted. "It doesn't come anywhere near."

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