*This post of mine was also published on Forbes Woman.*
Christy Turlington Burns’ career as a model needs very little introduction or discussion. But these days, it is her work as a global maternal health advocate that has the Supermodel traveling from the marble halls of the US Congress to the dusty hills of Haiti.
The model Mother spoke with Anushay’s Point exclusively about her advocacy organization, why women’s health matters, the dualities of life, and what drives her to do the work that she does for women’s rights.
Starting and running an organization is no easy task, not even for an iconic Supermodel like yourself. What was the biggest challenge in starting your foundation, and what do you want Every Mother Count’s (EMC) legacy to be?
Initially, the film and campaign were my contribution to raise awareness about an underreported global tragedy costing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year, and an effort to end preventable deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth. We evolved into a 501 c3 foundation in early 2012, and this has allowed us to raise funds for programs in several countries.
One of the biggest challenges of our issue is awareness, but once people know the challenges and realize that there are solutions, we can now engage them in a more meaningful way.
Our goal is to continue to contribute to the global effort to significantly reduce lives lost at birth. I don’t really think of the organization as a legacy, per se. We are quite focused on the potential to make childbirth safe for ALL moms and to achieve that, we have a ways to go. I strongly believe that each preventable death is one death too many.
Your maternal health advocacy work regularly takes you to countries like Bangladesh, Haiti and Ethiopia. What has been one of the most powerful stories you experienced on a field visit?
It’s really important to get out, see and know the communities we aim to support. At this point, there are countless stories that motivate my daily efforts. I was in Haiti this past April just before Mother’s Day, and there were a few stories that are particularly fresh.
One day, we visited a maternity ward in the central plateau and witnessed a woman delivering her undiagnosed twins in her hospital bed with a room full of other expecting moms. Both babies were extremely premature and needed help breathing, but the facility didn’t have simple equipment that could have saved their lives.
Later that day, those babies were transferred, accompanied by their 17 year old sister, but the next facility was also ill equipped and they eventually both died. Had this woman had access to prenatal care sooner, the twins might have grown to term and been delivered safely. Had this mother not reached the nurses and midwives who helped her deliver in the maternity ward, she may not have survived either.
Despite all its progress, America has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios amongst industrialized nations in the world. Most women in the US still do not get paid maternity leave, and last week the New York Times stated that the “American way of birth is the costliest in the world.” Why is one of the world’s greatest global health leaders failing its own women at home?
I learned about our appalling rates soon after I learned the global ones. 99% of the nearly 300,000 pregnancy related deaths occur in developing countries. More than 60% of them in 11 countries.
In the US, we lose 2 mothers per day and half of those are preventable. Americans spend more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world, and we don’t necessary receive better care for the high price we pay. Our system is broken and when a healthcare system is broken, sadly, its women and children who suffer most.
According to Amnesty International, the US ranks 50th amongst developed countries in safe motherhood and that is not acceptable. As empowered citizens, we need to demand more for families.
What are your thoughts on more women opting for natural and home-births instead of hospital births? Do you think it is indicative of a larger movement of women wanting more control over their reproductive health and rights?
There is a movement building of women who want to return to a different kind of birthing experience. I know I did. To me, it just made more sense to deliver my children naturally with a midwife. I wanted to be present and to be known by the person who delivered my children. I wanted the freedom to move, and I wanted to be in an non-medical environment.
I was fortunate to have a birth center option available to me which was within a hospital. This was an ideal scenario because I was able to have all the comforts of home with the proximity of emergency obstetric care in the event it was necessary. Most women don’t know they have options. Others simply don’t. Childbirth can and should be an empowering experience. I wish that for all those who choose to be Mothers.
You recently told Harper’s Bazaar that you believe there is a “duality in all of us.” Between being a model and working as a maternal health advocate, do you feel that you sometimes live in two worlds, or does it make perfect sense to you?
I have always understood that we are all more than one dimensional. That should be a given really, but it’s not. As a teenager when I started modeling, but I was also a student, a daughter, a sister…I had lots of interests and I didn’t let any of them go as I matured and developed. I added other interests and experiences. I have earned my living largely from my work as a model since I was 14 years old, yet I haven’t thought of myself as a model since the mid 90’s when I stopped working full time and went back to school. Since then, I have added so much more to my resume.
I wrote a book, founded two businesses, advocated for a number of causes, became a wife and a mother, directed a documentary, returned to school again and founded the nonprofit – Every Mother Counts. I am all of those things because each of those experiences represent different facets of who I am. I hope to continue to evolve for as long as I can.
What is EMC’s “Summer of Sisterhood Campaign about?
We recently launched our 2nd annual Summer of Sisterhood (SOS) campaign. Each month we change our lens slightly to engage our community and new audiences on a related topic to get people thinking differently about maternal health and offer ways they can help educate others while taking action.
For the summer, we decided to extend our focus through the summer so we are providing an array of content to help us make more meaningful connections with our “sisters,”moms, and friends and the issues that are important to us. Basically, we provide a bucket list of ideas that people can do to help advocate for maternal health. Highlights from the list includes:
- Summer book and film club for moms, dads, and kids.
- Ask people to send us an Instagram or Facebook picture of their vacation destinations, and we’ll shine a light on the state of maternal health in those areas.
- Family challenge to swim “Laps of Love” by getting sponsors to contribute a certain amount of cents or dollars per lap to EMC. 100% of donated funds will help moms around the world.
I think it’s so great how you strike an effortless balance between traveling to some of the world’s most remote clinics to attending briefings on Capitol Hill to speaking at major international maternal health conferences like Women Deliver. What drives you to work this hard to make the life of every mother count?
It’s my passion for maternal health that really fuels my dedication to this cause. I strongly believe that the life of every mother does count, and that maternal health is a universal issue that affects each of us. Women who are bringing life into the world deserve access to quality maternity care, and every child deserves a healthy mother to love and protect them. I feel strongly that if we have a voice to make a change, we must use it. That is ultimately what drives my work.
*This post of mine was also published on Forbes Woman.