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.