Intern Spotlight: The Women’s Health Advocate


Alena Nelson is a senior majoring in sociology and global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She joined Direct Relief at the start of this year as a Research and Analysis intern through the Sarah Miller McCune Endowed Public Service and Internship Program, a year-long project which pairs students with local nonprofits. Below she reflects on her experience so far:

I was drawn to intern at Direct Relief after I had the privilege to live and travel in North and West Africa where, combined with my experiences in the United States and education, the interplay between poverty, health, gender, and human rights became evident.

I’m particularly inspired by the organization’s commitment to prevention and treatment of obstetric fistula. Obstetric fistula is a preventable and treatable childbirth injury that occurs most often from obstructed labor and can lead to many unpleasant and severe complications, including incontinence and community ostracization.

My current project at Direct Relief is working on the 2014 Global Fistula Survey. With the guidance of my mentor, Jennifer Lemberger, I am helping distribute a survey worldwide to over 400 facilities that provide fistula repair services. Upon receiving responses from places like Pakistan, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we analyze the data and conduct follow up in order to address additional questions or discrepancies. The final product will be updating the Global Fistula Map to reflect the most recent data, share research, and use the findings to support the most efficient use of Direct Relief’s resources in tackling the problem of obstetric fistula.

My subsequent assignment is to help assess the efficiency of Direct Relief’s commitment to supporting midwives, specifically with midwife kits. Training midwives helps provide essential care to women and children and the supplies they use in administering health care are imperative to this work. Data collected on the number of births attended by Direct Relief’s midwife kit partners will be assessed to help understand the impact and outcomes of this particular program.

Together these two projects will contribute to improving the lives of people around the world, particularly women and their communities. In addition, these projects have enabled me to see international aid work from behind the scenes. Upon completion of my internship, I hope my personal experience at Direct Relief will help me further understand the needs of the international community and ways for addressing globalized gender inequality.

Editor’s note: The Global Fistula Map was migrated to the Global Fistula Hub in 2020 to better understand the landscape, known need, and availability of fistula repair services around the world.

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