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Filmmaker and activist Christy Turlington Burns (Evan Agostini/2006 Getty Images)
Filmmaker and activist Christy Turlington Burns (Evan Agostini/2006 Getty Images)

Christy Turlington Burns

Pull down the barriers to maternal health care access Add to ...

I met Lightness in Tanzania about a year ago. She was sitting on the side of a road, just 16 years old and pregnant with her first child. Her mother, who had flagged us down for a ride to the clinic, estimated she was three weeks past her due date. When we arrived at the clinic, Lightness wept after being told by the nurses that she was too small to deliver her baby there, as they were ill-equipped to do anything more than refer her to the nearest hospital - an hour's drive away.

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The next day, I found her at home, near where we had first met. I had gone to check on her and discovered Lightness and her mother had not yet followed the nurses' advice of going to the hospital immediately. I offered them a lift. It turned out Lightness would need an emergency cesarean section to deliver her baby. An assistant medical officer performed the surgical procedure, pulling a baby girl out of her taut belly within an hour of our reaching the facility. Thankfully, Lightness and her baby survived. And they lived happily ever after … or will they?

Now, let me tell you what would have happened to Lightness had I not been in Tanzania last June, coincidentally filming a documentary about the barriers to accessing maternal health care around the world.

Before Lightness became pregnant, she was about to complete her primary education. The pregnancy not only forced her to leave school, it scared the baby's father away. Soon after, her own father learned of her condition and he, too, abandoned the family, blaming his wife for allowing Lightness to get pregnant. Happy endings don't come easily in many parts of the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, one out of 22 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth. (In developed countries, it's one in 7,300 women.)

Lightness was more than lucky that our paths crossed as they did, but hundreds of thousands of women continue to die each year, even though we know how to prevent 90 per cent of all maternal deaths.

Why do I continue to worry about Lightness a year later, after I know she survived? Because it's her face I see when I read the statistics about maternal mortality. Lightness was sent home from the hospital the day after her delivery because there was a shortage of beds.

Pregnancy is the biggest killer of women between the ages of 15 and 19 in the developing world. Nearly 70,000 young women like Lightness die every year because their bodies are not ready for parenthood. Due to Lightness's stature, she was unable to deliver her baby without emergency obstetrics. Without access to the services she received at the hospital, Lightness and her baby would be dead - or she would have suffered the kind of lifelong disability that results from an obstructed labour. For every woman who dies in childbirth, 20 more endure debilitating complications. This means 10 million women suffer from postdelivery infections, disabilities and severe conditions like fistula each year.

There are more than 200 million women who would like to choose when they get pregnant, but don't have access to modern contraceptives. Giving these women access could also reduce the number of maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions. In order to survive and thrive, women and girls need a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services. This includes: maternity care, contraception, safe abortion, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV-AIDS, along with comprehensive sex education and protection of their human rights.

I invite all mothers who have survived pregnancy to urge our global leaders at this summer's G8/G20 summit to renew their commitments to Lightness and all of the other young women like her. Without all of us coming together on the issue of improved maternal health, there will be no lasting success. No woman should die giving life.

Christy Turlington Burns is a CARE advocate for maternal health and director of the documentary No Woman, No Cry .



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