When Mothers Die

Throughout the developing world, women die in childbirth for lack of the simplest things: soap, clean sheets, and trained birth attendants. Model Liya Kebede is part of the new movement to prevent these deaths.

AP Photo

One thing modeling taught me is that the spotlight can change everything. I recently attended two remarkable gatherings that are helping shine the spotlight where it is desperately needed—on our global maternal-mortality crisis.

Last month at the U.N. General Assembly, 23 heads of state, 50 government ministers, and many business and NGO power brokers gathered to talk about issue. Later that evening, 300 of the world’s most remarkable, accomplished women gathered for dinner to take this challenge into their own hands. Guests included Sarah Brown, Indra Nooyi, Tina Brown, Wendi Murdoch, Queen Rania, Tyra Banks, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Brown, Gayle King, Ann Curry, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Aerin Lauder, Diane von Furstenberg, Helene Gayle—and that was only the beginning.

USAID estimates that the world economy loses $15.5 billion each year because of preventable maternal deaths.

These events are an important part of bringing the tragedy of maternal mortality into the light. Everyone from governments to business leaders to ordinary women are finally recognizing that we must save mothers’ lives. Women in developing countries are more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than any other cause. A woman dies in childbirth every minute—half a million mothers each year—and every one of these deaths is easily preventable.

As a mother and an Ethiopian woman, this issue hits close to home. I gave birth to my two beautiful children in New York City with access to some of the world’s best health care. In Ethiopia, as in most developing countries, most women give birth alone without access to basic health supplies or trained assistance. And by the way, no other health disparity in the world is so stark; virtually every woman who dies giving birth lives in a poor country. Preventing those deaths does not require a miracle vaccine or years of research—all it requires is soap, clean sheets, and trained birth attendants.

As our global community struggles to recover from the economic crisis, it is tempting to ignore the problems of the outside world and focus on ourselves. But this is exactly the wrong approach. Each mother who dies deepens the financial and social strain on our world, and causes permanent harm to her husband, children, community, country, and, eventually, every single one of us. In fact, USAID estimates that the world economy loses $15.5 billion each year because of preventable maternal deaths.

The good news is that we can prevent these deaths, starting today. What is lacking isn’t knowledge, it’s commitment—a global commitment to reducing maternal mortality. This is such a simple issue. We have the power to save the lives of mothers and children in the developing world, and we should. I’m going to keep shining the spotlight on mothers and on the incredible people working to save their lives in the most unforgiving conditions. What will you do?

Get Involved. How to Help: The Liya Kebede Foundation works to reduce maternal, newborn, and child mortality around the world.

Liya Kebede is an internationally recognized supermodel, actress, designer, maternal-health advocate and mother. She is the founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation, a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization’s maternal and child health program, a champion of the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, and an advisory board member for the Mothers Day Every Day campaign.