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She Almost Died Giving Birth. Now She Helps Moms Around the World

Maternal health advocate Christy Turlington Burns shares the power of storytelling to save women’s lives.

These Indigenous Women Are Saving Lives One Birth at a Time

To combat the highest mortality rates in Central America, indigenous women in Guatemala are taking safe pregnancy care into their own hands. National Geographic partnered with Every Mother Counts to feature "Con Madre" as part of the Short Film Showcase.

Every two minutes, a woman dies of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth—that’s about 720 deaths every day. But 98 percent of those are preventable.

“We’re not exactly waiting for a cure,” says Christy Turlington Burns, a model, filmmaker, and entrepreneur who advocates for global maternal health. In 2010, she founded the nonprofit Every Mother Counts; it has since invested $4 million in grants to maternal health organizations in seven countries around the world. (See Nat Geo photographers' favorite photos of their moms.)

Burns’s advocacy work began with No Woman No Cry, a documentary on global maternal health filmed while completing a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. “Con Madre,” a new documentary shared above, focuses on indigenous Guatemalan women who blend clinical practice and traditional midwifery. (Learn about the strange history of Mother’s Day.)

Burns spoke with National Geographic about storytelling, the maternal health crisis, and the importance of community.

You were inspired to found Every Mother Counts when you yourself experienced a childbirth complication. What was it like to move from that personal, emotional experience to something beyond yourself?

In 2003, I had a post-partum hemorrhage after giving birth to my daughter, who’s now almost 14. That experience made me want to understand not only why that happened to me, but also why so many girls and women around the world are continuing to die from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications when we actually know how to solve those problems.

Learning that information through having that personal experience made me dig a little deeper, and the deeper I go the more I feel compelled to do—to help educate through storytelling and filmmaking so people understand what the challenges are, but also what the solutions are.

What was it like to reach these women’s stories through language, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences?

My mother’s from El Salvador and I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America, so for me Guatemala feels like home. And what I did for a living [as a former supermodel], or what my socioeconomic background is, I don’t think was apparent to any of the people we filmed with. It’s only really relevant here in our culture where there’s that awareness.

We connect to the people in the films through someone where trust is already established. So we’re very, very sensitive to getting that story right: cutting the film together, rebuilding those stories, knowing the outcomes but trying to tell them honestly as they unfolded in front of us, and then the layers of translation. It’s not easy, but you do your best to hear and give dignity and respect to those stories, to give voice to people who might not otherwise feel they had the opportunity to share what they’d gone through.

Advocacy—of which storytelling is a critical part—is one aspect of your work, but what do you look for when you’re deciding what programs to invest in?

Today we have grantees in the U.S., Haiti, Guatemala, Tanzania, Uganda, India, and Bangladesh. We’ve evolved the investments that we make to look at these three barriers: access to transportation, to supplies, and to people with skills and training. We’ve impacted over 600,000 people.

Over the last five years, we’ve been introduced to various people through filmmaking and other NGOs we’ve worked closely with. The goal is to link those grantees: in Tanzania, for example, all of our grantees are in the same ecosystem now, they’ve become part of a network that encourages that work at a local level. From New York, it’s hard to be more than a facilitator, but we try to be good partners.

How have the women you’ve met through your work with EMC impacted you? How do you think EMC’s work has impacted them?

We went back to Bangladesh in 2011 to show No Woman No Cry to the people who’d been involved. I visited with Monica [a woman shown in the film] and her husband. She survived childbirth in the story that we told, but after that she and her family moved back to the countryside, and her child died of drowning at nine months. So when I came to show her the film, I knew this, and I was worried about her revisiting that, but she really wanted to see it.

She cried a lot. Afterward we sat there together for a long time. She said, “I’m so grateful that there’s an image of him, that he was there. I remember him being happy, I remember coming home with him.” Just to have that interaction with another woman—there’s a lot of sadness and we often don’t know what to do, but here I saw the honoring of this child. That was really powerful, and meaningful—it was one of so many moments where I felt deeply connected to another human being, based on this experience.

What are you most proud of when it comes to EMC? What are you most driven to do in the future?

Sustaining anything is a lot of work, and it requires a lot of people who believe in what we’re trying to do. On the best days, it’s that sense of community that’s come together because they want to do for other people. There’s so much more to do. Birth is just the beginning—it’s an overwhelming amount of work. So I go back to those human moments, that’s where the pride is.

[In the future,] we’re trying to connect Corazón del Agua with clinical practices like ACAM (Association of Midwives of the Mam Speaking Area of Guatemala), because you need a lot of options for women at every level. The birth center run by the comadronas (midwives) at ACAM is so incredible. To be a comadrona comes with thousands of years of wisdom and passed-down knowledge; it’s something to be revered. To see the traditional practices continuing is just phenomenal. We want comadronas to have the respect and reverence they deserve, as well as to support another generation of midwives who need that guidance, but who also have clinical training to have that connection to the health system. So we want people to understand they’re in tandem, that the future of healthcare in Guatemala requires being open to both of them. And we’re taking a similar approach in as many places as we can.