Commentary Maternity and Birthing

One Mother’s Journey: Human Rights For All Mothers

Christy Turlington Burns

If we can save mothers, we won’t just save their individual lives; we’ll help save their children’s lives, boost their children’s education rates, and maintain and even boost agricultural productivity.

Cross-posted from the Gates Foundation blog.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, so close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…”

This quote by Eleanor Roosevelt opens my documentary film, “No Woman, No Cry.” Access to maternal health is a human right and I agree with Eleanor that human rights “… are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.” Every citizen of the world has an equal stake in the health and well-being of the world’s mothers.

It took me becoming a mother for the first time, however, to make these connections. Following the birth of my daughter seven and a half years ago, I started to hemorrhage. Thanks to a capable team at a New York City hospital, my daughter and I survived. Afterwards, I learned that postpartum hemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide.

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I began to travel with the humanitarian organization CARE, and was visiting a rural community in El Salvador (my mother’s birth country), while pregnant with my son, when the injustice of this disparity became so blatantly clear for me. I knew I had to do what I could to improve mothers’ health and reduce their deaths around the world. I made the documentary film, “No Woman, No Cry” to help bring these stories to audiences and policy makers.

I focused on this issue, not just because of my emotional connection, but also because it’s a strategic way to engage broader issues of development. Maternal death rates are widely regarded as signs of how well a health system functions. We know that building basic health systems can significantly impact the less sexy, but ever pervasive, killers like postpartum hemorrhage. However, mobilizing support to make those sorts of investments has proven far more difficult than doing so for more disease-specific efforts.

Perhaps it’s because we haven’t done enough to reveal how the most basic and simple building blocks of a health system—like a frontline health worker—can save lives. If we can save mothers, we won’t just save their individual lives; we’ll help save their children’s lives, boost their children’s education rates, and maintain and even boost agricultural productivity.

People understand how critical moms are—they just don’t really realize how pervasive this problem still is. I hope my film starts to change that, but it’s not enough just to be informed. Once you’re touched by this subject, you want to get involved. As I was finishing the film, I founded “Every Mother Counts” so that people could get more information and then take action. Every Mother Counts offers actions that we can all do, no matter how big or small.

Maternal health is one of the most universal human rights issues across the globe. We each can contribute in a meaningful way and make a difference in the live of families and their communities worldwide.

“Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

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