a tale of two sisters

Christy Turlington-Burns, No Woman No Cry (2010)

Christy Turlington. [Photo by Fortune Live Media]

Stevie ModernFor some, pregnancy can be a death sentence.

Consider for a moment that the number one cause of death for adolescent girls in developing countries today is from pregnancy complications and childbirth, and that in almost all cases, these deaths are preventable.

For Christy Turlington, an American former supermodel, that personal discovery came after serious health issues arose during the birth of her first child. A post-partum haemorage put her in the ‘living’ category of a condition that claims the highest number of deaths among women giving birth worldwide.

What shocked me … was the fact that, of the 358,000 women who die each year, almost all can be saved with adequate medical care. It’s incredible that we know what it takes to save most women’s lives in childbirth, and yet thousands die each year because even the most basic care is out of reach. How can this be?

Turlington-Burns, C. 'No Woman No Cry' [Film Documentary]The answer she says, relies firstly on ‘political will’. Her research in maternal health lead her to produce and direct her own documentary No Woman No Cry.

Since that time, Turlington has been a passionate advocate to save and enhance the lives of mothers around the world.

Every Woman Counts, an organisation she founded, seeks to redress the health of mothers as a modern global priority. Turlington attributes her passion to empathy, what she has called a ‘sisterhood in motherhood’, to develop often simple practical solutions. Through experience working with the CARE organisation, she saw firsthand how significant reductions in maternal mortality can be achieved.

For Turlington’s ‘sister’ Agnes in Tanzania, labor caused both the loss of her baby, and fistula. Fistula, a rupture during childbirth, is an operable condition. Like the estimated two million women the WHO estimates are living with fistula, lack of hospital access meant Agnes was unable to control bodily functions, and remained untreated for ten years. Her condition ostracised her from her community, and lead her to be hounded and labelled as ‘cursed’ by fellow villagers.

Every Mother Counts tells how Agnes instead came to be an educator on fistula to her community in this short 6-minute video segment.

Turlington identifies the cause of avoidably high death rates from pregnancy not only in poverty and restricted healthcare access. Much of the solution she says lies in also identifying root cultural causes and preventing their harmful practice. She blames many maternal fatalities in the developing world on traditional cultures promoting child (and therefore forced) marriage. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 56% of worldwide deaths from pregnancy occur, nearly half of girls are married before the age of 18. The chance of death during childbirth for girls under 15 is five times that of adult women, and twice as likely at this age than girls aged 15-20 years.

Speaking at a recent Trust Women conference, Turlington says,

If we can get girls to be girls as long as possible, then we can delay early marriage and first pregnancies and a lot of the ongoing health implications of those practices.

Consider that: The risk of death is halved in developing countries by ensuring girls ‘remain girls’ beyond 15 years of age. Any future target to reduce maternal death rates, Turlington says, should focus on adolescent girls – these most vulnerable. Pregnancy at an undeveloped age raises terrible health consequences, including fistula and infant death. The World Health Organisation notes obstructed births (where the mother is too young or undeveloped to safely deliver) are responsible for 8% of infant deaths.

Changing the culture of child marriage, and focussing government attention on the social and economic costs of maternal death should form important conditional priorities for wealthy donor countries. Every mother counts. Much of that realisation can be credited to Turlington, who by modern example has shown ‘sisters’ (and brothers) must raise their own voices in making a real difference ♦

If we can recognise our inherent connection to other mothers, we can make saving their lives a priority.

Christy Turlington-Burns

Turlington describes her film motivations in this interview with CARE Pres. Dr. Gayle King. No Woman No Cry (DVD) is available for order here on iTunes.