Skip to main content

Nancy Durrell McKenna swishes into a downtown Toronto bistro, all good looks and best intentions.

The award-winning Canadian photographer and filmmaker, who lives in London, sets down her Longchamp pouch bag and small backpack, takes off her coat and rummages through one of her bags to extract a lime-green shawl-like sweater, which she throws on over her fitted black top and leggings, flipping one end of it over her shoulder.

"There," she says, offering a smile, as she settles into a booth and rests her chin on her hand, leaning well over the small wooden table, ready to begin the conversation about her work as founder and head of Safe Hands for Mothers, a charity committed to reducing maternal and infant mortality in developing countries. Almost 25 per cent of women in the Third World suffer reproductive complications and more than 600,000 die needlessly from related causes every year. In town early in March to discuss her new documentary on female genital mutilation, The Cutting Tradition, she partners with NGOs in Africa to produce films (from documentaries to training videos) on a number of subjects that affect the lives of women.

The trim 61-year-old, a wife and mother of two adult sons, exudes no-nonsense purpose. She has a mission. She has a "uniform" style of dressing. ("I'm a silver lady," she says of her chunky jewellery.) She has an hour.

Her career and success in maternal and infant health issues have had a long, unplanned gestation. Part of the generation that coined the Have-It-All phrase of seventies-era feminist accomplishment, she is an example of how you can never know where life (and interests) will take you. Her life story is not so much about Having It All as Letting It All Unfold.

A graduate in physical education from McGill University in Montreal, where she was born, she went off to London in 1976 to accompany her new husband, William McKenna, currently a professor of cardiology at University College London who was pursuing graduate work at the time. She took up photography and got a few freelance assignments for fashion and bridal magazines. An opportunity to do the photography for an educational book on pregnancy and childbirth followed. And then came more. Ms. Durrell McKenna, who has eight books to her credit, has published a total of five on childbirth and pregnancy. Assignments to chronicle development work in Third World countries later came up, which she always found a way to juggle with her busy family life. "My husband has always been incredibly supportive of me," she says. They had part-time help when their boys were young, but if an interesting assignment that required travel materialized, she would ask his opinion and "he always would tell me, 'Just say yes and we'll figure out [child care]later.' "

She felt drawn to stories of pregnant women and children in the developing countries she visited. "It all goes back to this extraordinary miracle of life," she says with a passion that belies her crisp, put-together exterior. "And the biggest decision for me was taking on a bigger challenge. I could have remained a stills photographer, but it's about thinking about what difference I can make. I'm not going to change the world, but I am sure as hell going to try to better the situation for newborns and mothers."

In 1999, during a presentation of her work on a safe-motherhood project with Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan that focused on how maternal mortality could be reduced, she realized the power of "visuals that could act as a catalyst for change and community conversation." In 2003, she founded Safe Hands for Mothers, which has produced nine films to date, ranging from educational films to train front-line health care workers about care for pregnant women who may be carrying the AIDS virus to what she calls "sensitization" documentaries about complex subjects such as child marriage and female genital mutilation.

By sensitization, she means that her films such as The Cutting Tradition, which was commissioned by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, is shown in remote African villages in an effort to provoke community discussion about female genital mutilation or FGM. Her charity has also developed solar-powered DVD players, so health care workers "can walk for three hours to get into a community," she says.

In addition to the expected professionals discussing the health dangers of FGM, the film includes surprising interviews with local men and women about the underlying reasons the ancient practice persists despite it being outlawed. Men refer to the mutilation of removing all or part of a woman's vulva and clitoris as "cutting out the devil" and a way to keep a wife faithful and in the house. An uncircumcised woman is ineligible for marriage, many said. One elderly woman divulged that Western women may have their perfumes, but in Africa, FGM, which involves sewing the genital area closed, is a way to ensure a woman smells nice. A community discussion with a health-care worker can help dispel some of these myths, Ms. Durrell McKenna says.

"It's about not being judgmental. You have to understand why these practices are being considered," she says, calm and cool and blond in her elegant demeanour despite the subject matter.

The hour is almost up. "Do you realize that in the 60 minutes we have spoken, 60 women somewhere in the world have died unnecessarily in childbirth or pregnancy?" she asks, pushing her hair off her face. And during that time, there was only one brief moment when she had let slip her reason for pursuing her advocacy, when it's clear her life could easily involve shopping, travelling and tennis clubs. "I don't want to be an average woman," she had murmured before getting back on message. Perhaps what she meant what was that she didn't want to be a typical product of her class.