Three years ago, Habiba Cooper-Diallo – she was 14 years old at the time – stood up in a crowded education forum and asked former Toronto District School Board director of education, Dr. Chris Spence, if he had a plan to engage Black boys in her Grade Eight class at Arlington Middle School in the one month before school closed for the summer.
At her 16th birthday celebration in April 2012, the only gifts she requested were small donations for Women’s Health Organization International (WHOI) which she launched at her party. She raised almost $1,500 for online education and awareness.
The organization was inspired by Cooper-Diallo’s passionate interest in obstetric fistula, which is a severe medical condition in which a hole develops between either the rectum and vagina or the bladder and vagina after severe or failed childbirth in instances where adequate medical care in unavailable.
The Halifax resident is among a select group of “Top 20 Under 20” Canadians that are being recognized for myriad initiatives, ranging from curbing environmental damage in the oil sands to tackling job discrimination.
Outstanding teenagers who embody leadership, innovation and achievement are honoured by the RBC-sponsored national awards program administered by Youth in Motion, which is a charitable organization.
The final group of 20 is vetted and judged by a panel of Order of Canada recipients.
“We thought it was important for these individuals who have been recognized with the highest civil award to select the up-and-coming,” said Youth in Motion programs director, Larry Mah.
Cooper-Diallo became aware of obstetric fistula while reading the Wall Street Journal story of Anafghat Ayouba. Given into marriage at age 11, Ayouba suffered a severe fistula at childbirth. She died six years ago in her native Niger from complications of an infection.
It’s estimated there are close to one million young women with the debilitating condition in Africa. Because of their severe incontinence and smell, many have been ostracized by their families and villages and live by themselves or with fellow fistula sufferers.
Last year, Cooper-Diallo visited Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa’s Fistula hospital, which was established in 1974. It’s the only medical institution of its kind in the world dedicated to females with obstetric fistula. The hospital provides free surgery to nearly 2,500 girls and women each year.
After the visit with her mother and older sister, the young girl decided she wanted to pursue obstetrics and gynaecology instead of law.
“I have found my calling and I am committed to it,” she said.
Cooper-Diallo is the daughter of historian and poet, Dr. Afua Cooper, who is the James R. Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.