Hundreds of thousands of women around the world die from complications stemming from pregnancy and childbirth every year. In 2003, Christy Turlington Burns was almost one of them. After suffering a life-threatening complication following the delivery of her daughter, Grace, the 44-year-old supermodel realized that had she given birth in a less advanced country, her fate would have been chillingly different. “Women die each year due to similar complications, simply because they don’t have access to skilled practitioners and critical medical supplies,” she tells Haute Living.
After discovering that the majority of deaths (one every minute) could be prevented, Christy felt compelled to speak out about the importance of maternal health and directed a film documenting the stories of at-risk pregnant women from four parts of the world. These include a remote Maasai tribe in Tanzania, a slum of Bangladesh, a post-abortion care ward in Guatemala and a prenatal clinic in the United States. “It was a challenge to tell these stories accurately given the various cultural barriers, including language,” Christy admits. “I took these women and their stories in such a deeply personal way that they became a part of me and I wanted us all to be understood.”
No Woman, No Cry premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010 and has been shown at various college campuses, global health conferences, medical schools and on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Besides creating a national dialogue about the necessity for proper maternal healthcare, Christy’s directorial debut also gave viewers a glimpse inside her own debilitating birthing experience. “It wasn’t my plan to share my own story in the film, but after hearing and collecting so many stories, it became clear that mine had to be told along with the others to help inspire more sharing and dialoguing about the experience of childbirth,” she explains. “If sharing my experience helps save even one mother’s life, then it’s worth it.”
Wanting to raise even more public awareness, Christy founded Every Mother Counts, an advocacy organization that fights to end preventable deaths caused by pregnancy and childbirth around the world through awareness, education and action. “While funding is crucial, our main goal is raising awareness and educating the public about maternal health challenges and solutions,” she asserts. “We encourage people to take action such as running a 5K or a marathon, sharing their story of pregnancy and childbirth through blog posts and photos, volunteering with some wonderful organizations, donating an old cell phone or purchasing a product in which proceeds go to benefit maternal health projects on the ground.”
In only three years, Every Mother Counts has aligned with various non-governmental organizations and built corporate partnerships with several international companies, including Starbucks. In 2012, the organization partnered with the Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Foundation Uganda to fund transport vouchers to women in Uganda so they have means to reach essential health facilities and practitioners. “We are currently able to provide 13,500 women with vouchers that they can redeem for a ride to a health facility when they go into labor so that they can deliver safely and receive emergency obstetric or newborn care if needed,” Christy says, remembering her last visit to Uganda where she was able to see the impact of the vouchers first-hand.
“I always meet such interesting and inspiring women on these trips. During my last visit, I met Florence, who while holding her beautiful 5-month-old son, explained how the voucher she was given had been her ticket to a functional referral and a healthy delivery,” she recalls. “When Florence arrived at the health center it was determined that because of her baby’s size and position, she needed more advanced care at a higherlevel facility. She was loaded onto a three-wheeled ambulance called an E-ranger for another 60km ride to the referral hospital. Her healthy son, Promise, is testament to what a difference transport makes.”
Every Mother Counts also teamed up with Midwives for Haiti to increase the number of skilled birth attendants available to assist pregnant women in Haiti, which has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the western hemisphere. The foundation’s grant provides medical supplies and supports the training of 15 midwives, who will afford prenatal care to nearly 1,500 women and deliver between 120 and 240 babies this year.
When Christy’s not traveling the globe with her organization, she prefers to stay local and enjoy home cooked meals with her filmmaker husband, Ed Burns, and their two children. “I hope my choices and actions teach my children what I value in the way I choose to live my life.”