Celebrity philanthropists such as Bono, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney have shined their star power on global issues like AIDS, genocide, and refugees. In last month’s Vogue
, supermodel Christy Turlington turned the light on one of the most overlooked problems: maternal mortality.
Christy Turlington is not the only fashionista bringing attention to maternal health; Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede and actress Scarlett Johansson have also recently stepped out as advocates. In 2005, Liya Kebede
was appointed WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health
and founded the Liya Kebede Foundation
to improve the well-being of mothers around the world and reduce maternal deaths.
The Safe Motherhood Initiative needs more champions to help generate political and financial support. Progress towards meeting Millennium Development Goal 5, reducing the maternal mortality ratio by 75 percent, is stagnant. Since 1990, maternal mortality rates have only decreased by less than 1 percent, even though successful interventions such as family planning and access to skilled birth attendants have been proven to decrease the risk of death.
Syracuse University professor Jeremy Shiffman explained at a recent Wilson Center Global Health Initiative (GHI) event (video) why this humanitarian crisis has not received greater attention. He argued that unlike other global health concerns such as HIV, TB, and malaria, the Safe Motherhood Initiative has failed to attract significant global resources due to the maternal health community’s inability to “make the case.”
Increasingly, however, the safe motherhood movement has garnered “star power.” The White Ribbon Alliance (WRA), EngenderHealth, and the World Health Organization have collaborated with celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Yoko Ono, and Naomi Campbell.
In July 2009, celebrities working with WRA called on G8 leaders to follow through on their promise to address maternal mortality. “The statistics surrounding maternal mortality are tragic. How can we begin to resolve any of the problems facing the developing world if we cannot first save the lives of these women?” said Emma Thompson.
“The fact that 80 percent of these deaths are preventable means there is no excuse for a delay in reducing them,” added Annie Lennox.
Gushingly endorsed by celebractivists Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, and Anne Rice, the new book by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky, includes two searing and inspiring chapters on maternal health. At yesterday’s Wilson Center event (video), the couple shared the stage with two members of the White Ribbon Alliance, Aparajita Gogoi from India and Jérémie Zoungrana of Rwanda, in a wide-ranging conversation with ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko about ways to transform women’s oppression into opportunity.
While star power from celebrities and fashion icons helps highlight maternal health, real change will require the political will of policymakers in both developed and developing countries. Increasing access to reproductive health services and improving health systems will take significant financial and political resources in the places that most lack them.
One way to increase the money devoted neglected health problems like maternal mortality could be to improve communication between finance and health ministries in African countries, as a recent GHI policy brief points out. Investment in the health of women and girls will arguably produce significant returns in cold cash–which is much more likely to sway finance ministers than hot supermodels.
Photo: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with Christy Turlington, model and maternal health advocate, at a documentary film forum entitled “Envision: Addressing Global Issues through Documentaries.” Courtesy United Nations Photo.
By the Global Health Initiative’s Calyn Ostrowski and edited by Meaghan Parker.