Originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun, Jun 5, 2011
A career shift from supermodel to super-advocate is unusual, and for Christy Turlington Burns, it is also deeply personal.
In 2005, after suffering complications after the birth of her daughter, she embarked on a mission to understand the global epidemic of maternal mortality.
She went back to school to study public health at Columbia University, and began working with organizations such as CARE as Advocate for Maternal Health, and in 2008 began work on her first directorial effort -a documentary called No Woman, No Cry. In it, Turlington Burns travels around the world to share the stories of pregnant woman at risk.
Turlington Burns spoke to Postmedia News Service from her home in New York about how she got involved and how the film came to be.
Q: How does one transform from a supermodel to an expert on maternal health?
A: When I evolved and became a mom and learned that the (medical) complication I had was linked to the leading cause of maternal mortality in the world, that made me want to dig deeper. I had the opportunity to travel with the aid organization CARE a couple of years after I had my first child, and was pregnant with my second.
We travelled to El Salvador, where my mother was from, and being in that country with poor women living in rural areas while pregnant, that was the ‘a-ha’ moment.
Had I had the experience I had with my daughter Grace in that community, I would have died. I thought I could help other women make that connection, to bring it closer to them.
Q: You travelled to Bangladesh, Guatemala and Tanzania. Why these locations?
A: In Bangladesh, we wanted to show an urban story.
It was in the slums of Dhaka, and through a community health worker we met Monica, our main mom.
Her story turned out in a way that helped us communicate the cultural limitations in her area, which are the biggest mysteries of all working on these issues.
I chose Tanzania because it’s (among the countries) with the highest maternal mortality rates.
Its president has been incredibly vocal and taken a leadership position.
It’s a sub-Saharan African country where there are high rates, but political will, and (we wanted to) find out what is the big gap. And that is the human resource gap -that women live in rural areas and are way too far from the care that they should have access to in an emergency.
In Guatemala, the physician we focused on is an obstetrician who worked for Planned Parenthood.
She was eight months pregnant herself when we filmed with her.
I wanted to pick a country that had a large indigenous population, and that has grappled with some of the ideology that is so present in Latin America that is a barrier to care for so many women.