In 2010, following a postpartum hemorrhage after the birth of her daughter, Christy Turlington Burns founded Every Mother Counts, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving maternal healthcare worldwide. Since then, the number of women who die every year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth has been reduced by 200,000. And Turlington Burns won't rest until that number is even lower.
Just the other week, the supermodel and six-time marathoner flew to Tanzania—one of the key countries EMC focuses on—and ran the Kilimanjaro Half Marathon to help raise awareness about the distances mothers face to access the proper care. "In some countries, 5K is the minimum distance any woman will have to walk for any kind of help," Burns recently said by phone. "I keep that statistic in my mind to motivate me while I'm training."
Here, Turlington Burns talks more about EMC's initiatives and shares behind-the-scenes photos from her trip.
You founded Every Mother Counts in 2010. What has struck you the most in the past even years?
The resilience of women around the world, regardless of policies or decisions made on behalf of the world's most vulnerable. Women just continue to crawl ahead because that's really the only choice. As long as women continue to do what they have to do, the rest of us can figure it out and support them.
I traveled there the first time in 1990 for a photo shoot with British Vogue and [photographer] Arthur Elgort and it had a huge impact on me. When I started making No Woman, No Cry, it was a real challenge to narrow down the countries we were going to focus on because maternal mortality is global. I didn't want to just go to the place with the worst statistics—I wanted to go to the place with potential for change. Then I heard then-president Jakaya Kikwete speak at the United Nations and he was so passionate about maternal healthcare.
What specific issues are you focusing on there?
We've been focusing on transportation because of the distance barrier, supplies, and education is central to pretty much everything in development. We need more trained birth attendants and various levels of caretakers, from community health workers to doulas to midwives to doctors.
How do you get people in the U.S. to relate to what's going on abroad?
Our new film series, Giving Birth in America, examines the causes of maternal mortality state by state. We look at places like New York, Florida, and Montana and show what happens when women are not supported. There's a lot that we take for granted and there are a lot of ways to address inconsistent health care and chronic health. When people are in denial or don't know the facts, it's hard to make our case.
What's one thing you wish everyone knew about maternal care?
Health prior to conception is really important—it's something that people take for granted until they're in a position when they find themselves pregnant and suddenly have this small window of opportunity to take better care of their health. I went into pregnancy healthy and prepared but without the proper planning and access to health workers, it would've ultimately been a very different experience and outcome. It starts with adolescent girls. They need to be educated about sexual and reproductive health.
1. HOSPITAL VISIT
"We visited our grantee partners at the Foundation for African Medicine & Education (FAME) and toured the hospital, including the recently completed reproductive health building. I'm pictured here with Joyce, a registered nurse (RN), and FAME co-founder Susan Gustafson outside the new Reproductive Child Health Ward,where we got to meet mothers and babies who were waiting for their checkups."
2. STAFF TRAINING
"Here we are at the Makuyuni Clinic near Manyara, where we helped train the staff and installed a solar suitcase to provide electricity to the clinic. It was an incredible experience!"
3. FAMILY TIES
"This is a woman named Emelyne with her baby and her husband. This special moment was captured after her postnatal visit with their newborn, Samson, at the Makuyuni Health Dispensary. She is 21 years old, and Samson is just five weeks old. Emelyne chose to deliver at a nearby hospital with consistent electricity since Makuyuni did not have electricity. The solar suitcase we installed there will provide reliable electricity so that other mothers in the area can count on the health dispensary."
4. MOM ON THE MOVE
"I love this beautiful photograph of a new mom leaving FAME after her postnatal visit in the new Reproductive Child Health Ward in Karatu."
5. PHENOMENAL WOMAN
"This is Mary, a nurse assistant at Makuyuni Health Dispensary—just one of the incredible women we met with who are dedicated to improving access to essential maternity care in Tanzania. She has been working for 14 years at this clinic, where she provides care to the entire family."
6. OLD FRIENDS
"Reunited with my Tanzanian family! This is Janet, David, Kennedy, Dennis, and Aidan Lomboi at the USA River Academy where all the boys are in school. I first met Janet on the first day of our Tanzania shoot for No Woman, No Cry in 2009. At the time, she was pregnant with Aidan and had walked many miles to the health dispensary for care. She eventually delivered her third son at Mt. Meru Hospital and has since given birth to two more boys. Janet's biggest dream was that her children have access to education. I am so proud of how smart and polite these boys are as they have grown into beautifully educated young men."
7. GROUP SHOT
"Running the Kilimanjaro Half Marathon for the second time was such an incredible experience. Team Every Mother Counts had a group of 20 women running and we collectively raised almost $150,000 to improve access to essential maternity care. For women living in countries like Tanzania, especially in rural areas, distance is an enormous barrier for mothers who need healthcare of any kind. In fact, the minimum distance a pregnant woman often has to travel is 5K for prenatal care. An average distance to reach emergency obstetric care is 35K, and often times much more."