Vesicovaginal fistula is a devastating injury in which an abnormal opening forms between a woman's bladder and vagina, resulting in urinary incontinence. This condition is rare in developed countries, but in developing countries it is a common complication of childbirth resulting from prolonged obstructed labour. Estimates suggest that at least 3 million women in poor countries have unrepaired vesicovaginal fistulas, and that 30 000-130 000 new cases develop each year in Africa alone. The general public and the world medical community remain largely unaware of this problem. In this article I review the pathophysiology of vesicovaginal fistula in obstructed labour and describe the effect of this condition on the lives of women in developing countries. Policy recommendations to combat this problem include enhancing public awareness, raising the priority of women's reproductive health for developing countries and aid agencies, expanding access to emergency obstetric services, and creation of fistula repair centres.