Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Women's and Gender Studies


Dagmar Herzog


Obstetric Fistula, International NGO, Humanitarianism, Evangelicalism, Medical Mission, Women's Health


In 2008, Christian author Shannon Ethridge pledged to donate a portion of the sales of her book The Sexually Confident Wife to the medial charity Mercy Ships International. Donations supported the provision of obstetric fistula repair surgeries for West African women who she dubbed “the least sexually confident women in the world.” This thesis asks what conditions occasioned Ethridge’s problematic statement and in so doing engages in a larger examination of evangelical NGO Mercy Ships, its history and contemporary practice, and the racialized, gendered and sexualized politics of fistula repair in international relief and development. First presenting histories related to the development of the international NGO, Christian medical missions to Africa and colonial and imperialist discourses surrounding the “protection” of colonized women, this analysis then turns to widespread donor and media portrayals of obstetric fistula. Staked in racist stereotyping and cultural pathologization, the typical narrative surrounding fistula, as this analysis shows, offers a site of convergence for the agendas of groups one would expect to be on opposite sides of a reproductive health issue, “progressive” feminists and religious conservatives. In this sense, obstetric fistula as a cause du jour reiterates long-standing racialized logics underwriting how colonial and humanitarian discourses have selectively become concerned with the plight of “Other” women for strategic means. In our contemporary context, this thesis argues, obstetric fistula as a cause can be read as a diversionary tactic and moral cover for the effects of neoliberal economic policy in the global south, a site of essential revenue generation for international NGOs and, finally, a sleight of hand that distracts from the unacknowledged conditions of patriarchy at “home.”