Saving girls from senseless deaths


Model and maternal health advocate Christy Turlington Burns at the GBCHealth Conference in New York.


Whitney Kidder

Christy Turlington Burns has established a diverse career as a model, writer, entrepreneur, spokesperson, advocate and filmmaker. In 2005, she became an advocate for maternal health for both CARE and RED. In 2010, she debuted her documentary film, "No Woman, No Cry," about the global state of maternal health, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Along with the film debut, she launched Every Mother Counts, a campaign designed to educate and support maternal, newborn and child health. 

While in rural Tanzania filming my documentary, “No Woman, No Cry,” about mothers around the world, I met Lightness, a frightened, pregnant 16-year-old.

Lightness never received reproductive health education, had become pregnant, and then was abandoned by her baby's father as well as her own. As soon as it was visible that she was pregnant, she was forced to quit school.

Her mom waved us down alongside the road and we drove Lightness to the local clinic. She was immediately referred to the closest regional hospital 35 kilometers away because she was past her due date and, nurses felt, too small to deliver at the clinic, which couldn’t handle more than a straightforward birth.

But, like most women in the region, Lightness had no way to get there. When we checked in on her the next day and saw that she couldn’t get to the hospital, we arranged for transport. Lightness underwent an emergency C-section.

I thought of Lightness last week at the GBCHealth Conference in New York City, where non-profits and companies came together to talk about maternal health and other health issues. Her story is representative of so many girls around the world who face similar life-threatening situations.

We heard at the conference about how pregnancy is the number one cause of death in girls and women aged 15-19 in the developing world – simply because their bodies are not ready for parenthood. And girls under the age of 15 are five times as likely to die as young women while giving birth.

Indeed, hundreds of thousands of girls and women continue to die each year from complications caused by pregnancy and childbirth. Ninety-nine percent of women who die during or after childbirth live in the developing world.

I became a global maternal health advocate when I became a mom eight years ago. After delivering my first child I experienced a complication that claims the lives of thousands of women who do not have access to the care I received that day. Once I learned about the global statistics related to maternal deaths, I felt compelled to use my voice and resources to do all I could to prevent these senseless deaths.

We know what many of the solutions are. They include access to health care, inexpensive drugs that stop post-partum hemorrhaging, a scale-up of community health workers, and reproductive health so that pregnancies can be spaced. Education is key. As maternal health and education advocate Sarah Brown said at the conference, “The very simple answer for teen-aged girls, to help reduce their vulnerability, is to have them at school.”

Another panelist, Naveen Rao, who leads an initiative called Merck for Mothers that aims to reduce maternal deaths, put it starkly: "We know what is killing them. We know why they die and we stand around watching them. It's a question of saying enough is enough. We need to decide whether mothers are worth saving."

By not investing in ways to prevent maternal deaths, the economic and social cost of maternal and newborn mortality is $15 billion per year in lost productivity. It seems clear to me that we cannot afford to not invest. A number of companies have become a significant force for transformation in this arena. The private sector can and should be a major factor in driving change. Collectively, we can make this a priority once and for all.

I returned to Tanzania last year and visited Lightness and her family. Lightness is completing her studies, her father has returned to the family, and her daughter, Vanessa, is thriving and loved by all. But I often wonder what would have happened if we hadn't found her on the side of the road that day.