After her own difficult labor, Christy Turlington became an activist for safe childbirth in the developing world. Michelle Goldberg talks to the supermodel about her new documentary, No Woman No Cry.
These days nearly every cause has a celebrity spokesperson, often called an ambassador. The title bespeaks a sort of well-intentioned dilettantism, and it’s easy to see why it makes Christy Turlington uncomfortable. “I hate the ambassador type of title,” says Turlington, who has worked closely with CARE, the humanitarian agency, since 2006. “It doesn’t feel right, given that there are real ambassadors.”
Turlington does not want to be a model who dabbles in activism. Instead, she’s worked hard to turn herself into an activist who dabbles in modeling.
In Guatemala, Turlington filmed one victim of a botched abortion who spent six weeks in the hospital and was never visited by her husband. “She’s the woman I worry about the most.”
At 41, the former supermodel has embarked on a new career as an advocate for maternal health and reproductive rights. Six and a half years ago, after giving birth to her daughter, Turlington started hemorrhaging. It was the sort of common complication that’s easily treated in the first world but often fatal in the developing world. The terror of that moment stayed with her, and inspired Turlington to learn more about maternal mortality.
While pregnant with her second child, she traveled with CARE to El Salvador, where her mother was born, and where she met pregnant women who have to walk miles merely to collect clean water. “The experience of having had the complications, and being in my mother’s country, which is incredibly poor. …It was a catalytic moment,” she says. “This is what I should be doing. I wanted to delve in more and get my hands dirty.”
So two years ago, Turlington enrolled in the masters program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, using her married name, as if to separate her celebrity persona from her student one. At the same time, she began working on No Woman No Cry, a documentary about maternal mortality worldwide.
This week, she’s screening it at Women Deliver, a huge, star-studded conference about reproductive health taking place in Washington, D.C.
In recent years, maternal mortality has moved toward the center of the global agenda, much as HIV/AIDS did a decade ago. Women Deliver itself, with high-profile speakers like U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, is evidence of that. (The Daily Beast highlighted maternal mortality at its own conference in March, the Women in the World summit.)
On Monday at Women Deliver, Melinda Gates announced that the Gates foundation will invest $1.5 billion over five years to support maternal and child health, family planning and nutrition programs in developing countries. More than 300,000 women die of pregnancy-related causes each year, the overwhelming majority of them in poor countries. Most of these deaths are preventable, and they devastate entire communities. Motherless babies are far less likely than others to survive their first two years. Girls whose mothers die are often pulled from school to fill their domestic roles. Statistically, women are far more likely than men to invest whatever resources they have on their children’s education and welfare, so when mothers are killed or left debilitated, cycles of poverty and misery are set in motion, with girls’ futures particularly blighted.
By following the stories of individual women around the world, No Woman No Cry shows why pregnancy is so often deadly in poor countries, and why small, intelligent interventions can make such a difference. The film begins in a Masai region of Tanzania, where a young woman named Janet nearly dies because she can’t afford the bus fare to a hospital 35 kilometers away. Had Turlington and her crew not been there, she might not have survived childbirth. Watching brings home the fact that simply building a clinic isn’t enough; that maternal deaths are symptomatic of larger problems of infrastructure and inequality.
“The transportation issue was so huge,” says Turlington. “Often, even when services are free, it didn’t even matter,” because people lacked resources to get to them or to feed themselves while away from home. While in Tanzania, Turlington met a woman who’d been suffering from fistula for 10 years. In her hut, she kept paperwork entitling her to free treatment at a hospital in the country’s capital, but had never been able to get there. (Turlington ended up helping her, too.)
“I didn’t want it to feel like an advocacy film,” Turlington says, “I wanted it to be an advocacy tool.” That means No Woman No Cry is almost wholly free of development jargon and even policy recommendations. It leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions as they’re thrust into the kind of real-life situations that health-care workers in poor countries see every day. Turlington also makes crucial connections between the plight of poor women abroad and at home; in the United States, as she shows, pregnant women without health insurance can have as much difficulty accessing care as those in the third world.
The documentary also follows a young woman in a Bangladeshi slum who feels shamed by the notion of giving birth away from home in a hospital. Seeing the brusque way she’s treated there, it’s clear her anxiety isn’t irrational. In Guatemala, Turlington travels with a charismatic, heroic young female doctor, pregnant herself; among other things, the doctor has to deal with the terrible fallout of unsafe abortion, which is responsible for 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide.
Throughout, one barely sees the women’s husbands, and their absence speaks loudly about how little male support they have. In Guatemala, Turlington filmed one victim of a botched abortion who spent six weeks in the hospital and was never visited by her husband. “She’s the woman I worry about the most,” Turlington says.
Turlington has also traveled to Peru, where she visited the FEMME Project, a joint initiative between CARE and Columbia University. There, in a part of the country with some of the highest rates of maternal mortality in Latin America, FEMME has succeeded in cutting maternal deaths in half, in part by improving referral systems and training Quechua-speaking midwives who can work closely with the community.
Seeing such a success story, says Turlington, was a revelation. “Oh my God, this can be done,” she says. “These numbers are staggering, but this is not an unattainable thing.” That might be the most important message to come out of Women Deliver: not just that the world is often a terrible place for women, but that there are ways to make it so much better.
How to Help: Learn more about Christy Turlington’s documentary and how to support access to safe childbirth and reproductive health services at Every Mother Counts.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.