Christy Turlington Burns, supermodel and our December cover star is on a mission to make childbirth safe for all mothers

Christy Turlington Burns, supermodel and our December cover star is on a mission to make childbirth safe for all mothers

The supermodel-turned-activist gets candid about the impassioned cause close to her heart

By Supriya Dravid  December 11th, 2019

Christy Turlington Burns is one of those rare visionaries whose humility and hard work makes space for new possibilities. The iconic supermodel became a champion maternal health advocate when she suffered a near-fatal postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) after giving birth to her daughter Grace, in 2003. She founded Every Mother Counts (EMC), a non-profit organisation that aims to make pregnancy and childbirth safe at a global level. EMC aims to engage, educate and empower women through community led maternal health programmes around the world. I chat with her on the importance of providing the continuum of care, mobilising funds to raise awareness, the power of a community and relevance of faith in today’s world. Excerpts from our conversation: 

Supriya Dravid: I went through PPH after I had my daughter. Everything was great until just after her birth. I was in the recovery room when I started bleeding. But while the nurses understood what was going on, the resident doctor dismissed it. Nobody wanted to admit that the doctors had ignored all the signs. I got better about three days later. But the point was that this wasn’t supposed to happen. In small towns across India, the nurses and the midwives are trained to tackle this. But this was in Delhi, the capital, with good medical facilities and trained doctors, who missed it. I guess this is why I have great admiration for Serena Williams, who went through PPH and came back to play a Grand Slam, and you, for using your personal experience to create a dialogue around this across the world. 

Christy Turlington Burns: Honestly, it’s actually more of a miracle when it goes well. It could happen to anyone. Most of us are trained to believe that the doctors know best. At that point of time, you feel disempowered, and feel that you don’t know what’s best for your body. Serena Williams is the perfect example. She knew exactly what was wrong, she asked for what she knew she needed and they still tried to dismiss her. And thank goodness she knows her body and has a voice and was strong in the moment to advocate for herself. But most women aren’t, in the state of post-delivery or while in labour. It’s very hard to articulate what you’re feeling, or thinking. It’s overwhelming. You are exhausted, and it all turns so fast. 

My father was an airline pilot and he used to train in a simulation every day and learn about all the things that could go wrong. In the medical field that doesn’t always happen. The United States, right now, is the only industrialised country with rising maternal mortality rate and most people are shocked to hear that. So many of these stories that have been emerging, particularly on women of colour, is about how they felt something was wrong. They were afraid to say anything— because they would be judged or discriminated against. Or said something important that was just ignored. 

 

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SD: What are the efforts taken by EMC for behavioural change in families and frontline workers for reaching out to provide total maternal care?

CTB: We are providing support to community-led organisations in places such as the US, Guatemala, Haiti, Tanzania, Bangladesh and India. Our partners are usually from the communities that they serve and they understand what the challenges are. You have to come in and you have to build trust, you have to listen. So that really has been our approach. We identify partners who are doing that. And we try to fund them so that they can reach and educate more people, and scale up what they do.

SD: How do you make the choice on the community that you work with?

CTB: It’s really been tough. We started in 2010, but we didn’t start giving grants until 2012. The storytelling, the advocacy, the educating of communities—all of it took a couple of years. The general public have no idea of the number of women and girls dying due to childbirth every year globally. When my film No Woman, No Cry came out, it was at just the right time as it helped elevate these voices of women. I found out what’s more rewarding to me is the ground up approach to advocacy—like let’s go to the communities and improve the quality of any woman’s delivery. These are all women knowing their bodies, having choices in how they deliver, understanding what the risks are for whichever choice they decide to make. All that information is good for any mother, and any family. But of course, the most marginalised women and communities are the ones that we are most committed to because they fall through the cracks.

SD: What are some of the efforts that you do at your level to engage with these women?

CTB: This is a global tragedy. You can almost close your eyes and put your finger on the map and say, let’s go there. So, I knew Sub-Saharan Africa has the worst with mortality, Southeast Asia has the second-worst maternal mortality. If you’re talking about country to country, I believe India and Nigeria have the most deaths per hundred thousand but they are also large populations, right? I went to school to get a Masters in Public Health, and Columbia University was very involved in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Maternal health and child mortality was number five on the MDG. This right to health is a true human right. EMC will turn 10 next year, and in that time globally, deaths have been reduced. When I became a mother in 2003, it was estimated that over 530,000 women and girls were dying every year because of pregnancy and childbirth related issues. Now, the number is 303,000. It is still too many but this is a huge difference in just by paying attention and having a political will. When we looked at data, I found that Bangladesh has had a 40 per cent reduction in maternal mortality. This is one of the poorest, and the most geographically vulnerable places in the planet. Yet with focus and commitment, and with a lot of support from NGOs, it has made a huge difference. Here, when maternal death happens, the community comes together and they do a death audit on it to understand how it could have been avoided. It starts from making a map of who is pregnant in the area, transportation, decision making authorities in the family, and finally educating those who ultimately might have the power to make the right decisions.

 

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SD: Do your partners also train midwives?

CTB: They train midwives, skilled birth attendants, traditional birth attendants, doulas and OBs. Everyone can use more education in this. Even the most experienced doctors can find themselves in a situation in which they have never been before.

SD: What is the message from EMC for young women and adolescent couples in the world?

CTB: More than 50 per cent of all pregnancies are not planned. I feel with millennials, they like to be informed and ask questions. My message is also: Don’t accept the first answer you get. Ask people—“What was your birth like?” That’s the only way you are going to get a sense of what feels right for you. People who do have a voice and resources: shame on us for not using them for those who don’t have the voice to be able to demand change. They need our voices to help elevate the voices of all of us. It’s the Bodhisattva.

SD: Do you also work in the field of abortion-related maternal deaths?

CTB: Almost 11 per cent of global maternal deaths are from unsafe abortions. ‘Safe, legal and rare’, I think, is the most humane approach for women. I want to be able to make sure that a woman has the opportunity to do what she needs to do, especially considering that so many women are forced into sex and forced into pregnancies. In the US, the political discourse is quite polarised. So we always start with—did you have a good pregnancy? Did you have any complications? Obviously, families are important. Children need parents. But let’s start on common ground i.e. how expensive it is and what a commitment it is to raise a family.

SD: How can an organisation working for maternal health get support—technical, financial, and educational— from EMC?

CTB: We are a small organisation and we are in six countries. It is important to have geographic touch points. We started very slowly with a focus on transportation, education and supplies. It took us a while before we were in a position to give grants. We identified opportunities where people invite us into situations. We work with Nazdeek in Assam, which has a great curriculum and model, that went to Bangladesh to our partners in Cox’s Bazar. They have now incorporated their human rights training to the midwifery training. It’s super complementary. We have another programme in the US in Navajo. A Native American midwife in New Mexico came to Guatemala where we have indigenous midwives that we support and we help to train. The shared learning of these indigenous women with each other is so remarkable. So trying to bring together best practices and models of care that are replicable and, of course, to see the grantee partners become friendly and have their own relationships with one another is really satisfying. I found that the smaller community-led initiatives have been the most satisfying, where you can really see change.

 

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SD: You studied Comparative Religion and Eastern Philosophy. What does faith means to you in today’s world?

CTB: I really think that people have to come to things on their own. I grew up a Catholic, but not strictly so. My mother’s from Central America and my father was Protestant. So there was a basis from which to be able to question and get to see up close. I was very curious and wanted to visit different places of worship, and experience different representations.

SD: That form of curiosity is not particularly common.

CTB: Yeah, I don’t know what it was. I can tell, that’s just who I am. I lived in northern California in a fairly homogeneous community. We moved to Miami for a few years as my father worked for Pan Am, and that was a much more diverse place. It was a turbulent time where Haitian and Cuban refugees were coming in and there were a number of police brutality cases with African Americans. At age 10, the world just opened up to me. Culture and religion are the reasons that people are fighting with one another. I wanted to explore about what brings us together. What unites us? Most religions have pillars that are similar about kindness.

SD: My son recently asked me, “What language would God understand if I speak to him?” I thought it was a great question.

CTB: If I answered, I’d probably ask “What do you think? What would you say?” And I like this idea of God so big and so much broader and more interesting and creative. Which is why I love eastern philosophy and religions because you see all these different sides. You see the feminine and the masculine, and all these characteristics. As a parent, we need to let kids continue to question. I think the more open-minded we are, the more connected we’ll ultimately feel.

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Photographs: Max Vadukul; Styling: Malini Banerji; Hair: Serge Normant using Serge Normant Haircare/ Statement Artists; Make-Up: Romy Soleimani for Bobbi Brown/ The Wall Group; Words: Supriya Dravid; Manicurist: Riwako Kobayashi Using Nailsinc/ Atelier Management; Production: Alexey Galetskiy And Ryan Fahey at AGPNYC; Post production: Picturehouse + Thesmalldarkroom; Assisted by: Pujarini Ghosh, Rupangi Grover, Tejaswini Sinha, Aparna Phogat, Sarah Caballero (styling), David Barron (photography); Location: Milk Studios, New York