In conversation with Christy Turlington Burns

Published in Dhaka Live on 28 June 2011

Christy Turlington Burns with Monica, a mother featured in "No Woman, No Cry"

Dhaka Live’s Jessica Mudditt caught up with one of the world’s most beautiful women to discuss her directorial debut, “No Woman, No Cry,” a documentary about maternal health in Bangladesh, USA, Tanzania and Guatemala, as well as her campaign “Every Mother Counts.”

Q: Every Mother Counts has raised awareness about maternal health care on a massive scale. While deliberately being free of policy recommendations, are you satisfied that public health organizations have taken up the mantle to bring about concrete change, or do you feel that more still needs to be done?

A: I do think that much progress has been made due to a huge amount of political will generated globally, thanks to the advocacy of a number of individuals and organizations. This has helped to direct attention on research significantly. That said, there is so much more to be done to achieve lasting progress. Through information sharing from hard lessons learned and better coordination amongst the various organizations worldwide, I am hopeful that more progress can be made.

Q: How did you come to know about BRAC and end up in Bangladesh?

A panel discusses the film and takes questions from the audience

A: I came to Bangladesh to film, “No Woman, No Cry” in January of 2009. Prior to coming the first time, I researched a range of organizations providing services to poor women and children and then once in the country, was able to narrow them down based on the potential of their programs after making several field visits. BRAC’s Manoshi program was one of the first NGO’s we saw and because it was so impressive we kept returning. We met Monica Begum, our central “character,” through the program on our first day shooting in Korail. We met her through the BRAC community based skilled attendant, Yasmin, on a home visit and continued to track her pregnancy through delivery. Bangladesh is one of the eleven countries with the highest rate of maternal mortality but we decided to profile this country because of the potential for success in making great strides to meet the MDG targets.

Q: Have you noticed any visible changes in Bangladesh since your last visit two years ago?

Oh the beauty...

A: Yes. Since I was last here, just two years ago, there was a survey conducted which revealed that MMR has dropped considerably in the past ten years. (From 320,000 deaths per live births to 194,000). As well, I also revisited Manoshi this week and have seen further exciting developments there too. BRAC now has a midwife from New Zealand training the community birth attendants which has improved the level of skills they have had, they have 24 hour ambulance services and are piloting an M Health mobile technology diagnostic that will make home visits and patient monitoring much more efficient.

Q: Once your Masters in public health at Columbia University is completed, what would you like to do next?

Christy's multi-million dollar smile

A: I am not seeking a position in another organization or institution but rather hope to continue to build upon my knowledge base and understanding of the data so that I can be a more effective global maternal health advocate in the future. I established the Every Mother Counts campaign last year, which is an action and mobilization effort to engage American citizens on the issues of maternal health around the world. This campaign is linked to the MDG goals, so I aim to use the film and my voice to the best of my ability to make an impact on them.

Q: As a supermodel, activist and scholar, you have witnessed both sides of this world – the haves, the have-nots and the have-nothings. Have your experiences sometimes caused you to feel despondent about the gross inequality that exists in present times, or do you remain optimistic about the future?

Exchanging views

A: There are of course times when the inequities become so glaring that it is painful to confront but because I am able to travel to the field often, I am rewarded with seeing improvements in the lives of vulnerable people. However small they may be, they are meaningful changes and prove to me that there is much for which to be hopeful. I grew up with a Mother from a developing country and visited frequently throughout my childhood. The disparities I recognized then are the same as those I see in my travels around the world today. My career as a model allowed me to continue to travel the world and those disparities are what has driven me to work on this issue.

Q: Do you agree that being a mother is one of the greatest joys of life, as well as one of the toughest jobs?

A: Yes, completely. You have to become a mom to be able to understand this, however. It is a tremendous responsibility to become a mother which is one of the reasons it is so important to become one by choice. It was deeply empowering for me to deliver my children the way that I wanted with the support and care I received. My wish is for every mother to experience that empowerment.

Q: Do you have a message for Bangladeshi fathers?

A: To all fathers, I would tell them to love their daughters enough to ensure them the highest level of education available to them.

Q: How did you cope during distressing situations while filming, such as witnessing the treatment of a woman in a Guatemala hospital who had “miscarried” after being raped?

Christy Turlington Burns

A: Making a documentary film on the subject of maternal health is very concentrated work and you become such a part of the subjects’ lives that you don’t make judgments about what you are learning and witnessing in the moment, you just take it all in. Later, during the editing process as we were getting better quality translations and weaving the stories together, I felt a tremendous gratitude to those who allowed us in, despite the sometimes agonizing times and the subsequent responsibility to do them justice in sharing their stories as succinctly as humanly possible. At the end of it all, what I learned was that being a girl in the world makes you incredibly vulnerable but I also learned that girls and women are incredibly strong and that there are some extraordinary people out there working hard for change.

Q: What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of being a director? Would you like to make further films in the future?

A: I have always loved to travel but being through this particular project, as a filmmaker, I was able to spend more time with our subjects in a more intimate manner than any other opportunity I have had. I hope to make more films as there are countless stories of women that need to be shared.

Q: The four countries in No Woman, No Cry depict a variety of obstacles faced by women in accessing maternal care. Is there one aspect you feel each country has in common or do you believe each situation is unique?

A: There were both common and unique barriers to each segment. In every case there were challenges with accessing care in a timely manner, which can be the difference that saves a life. There were no husbands standing by with support of any kind – women are really alone. In all of our stories there were compassionate care providers but many were unable to provide all the care that was required.

Q: The documentary highlights how issues of maternal health care are not confined to developing nations — why did you choose to include the US in the story?

Christy and I - such a thrill for me!

A: Soon after I became aware of the global statistics, I learned that the US was doing extremely poorly amongst the developed nations and I was shocked. I live in the US and had my children there so it seemed only fair to include it in this film. Plus, it was a complication I suffered when I delivered my daughter 7 1/2 years ago that woke me up these tragic facts, that hundreds of thousands of women die each year in pregnancy or childbirth. And in the US we spend more per capita on healthcare than any other country, which makes the fact that our maternal mortality rate is so dismal simply unacceptable.

For more information, visit http://www.everymothercounts.org

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