Caught Caring: The White Ribbon Alliance

In the United States, an uncomplicated pregnancy is — more often than not — followed by an uncomplicated delivery, with the health of mom and baby considered a given, not an exception. For millions of women living in the Third World, however, the joy associated with a baby-on-the-way is tempered by the sobering reality that death will often accompany new life.

Supermodel and mom-of-two Liya Kebede — who graces the May cover of Vogue — recalls it being “so normal” to hear of women dying during childbirth in her native Ethiopia, she assumed it was a universally accepted truth.

During a Tuesday visit to The Today Show she admitted thatshe was surprised to learn that pregnancy in the United States is not considered a potential death sentence, however. “Not only that, [but] you have your prenatal care, your postnatal care, and when you’re delivering you have the greatest medical care you could possibly wish for,” she notes. “If you were to deliver in Ethiopia, the minute you’re pregnant you are already thinking…’Am I going to die giving birth?'”

Her appearance was in support of The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood (WRA), an international coalition devoted to increasing public awareness of the dangers associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

So-named because white symbolizes both hope and mourning, WRA educates its 118 member countries and related member organizations through seminars and working groups, creates educational, communication and technical materials and organizes policy efforts directed at national and local governments to increase funding and programs for safe motherhood.

To that end, it recently launched the Million Mums Campaign, which itself notes that “every minute of every day, somewhere in the world, a woman dies due to pregnancy and birth-related complications.”

Liya witnessed such losses first-hand. “In Ethiopia, for example, possibly 70 to 80-percent of women deliver unassisted,” she explained, “At home, probably in a village, in a hut, [where] they have no water. So any little complication, the smallest thing, will kill the woman.” In fact, in Africa and Asia pregnancy and childbirth are the number one causes of death for women of childbearing age, killing an estimated 500,000 women each year.

Click below to read about the involvement of another supermodel mom.

The tragedy doesn’t end there, however. WRA estimates that 80-percent of those deaths are easily preventable, leaving more than 2 million children without a mom, and those infants of mothers who did not survive delivery are 3-10 times more likely to die within two years. Donations go a surprisingly long way towards reversing this sad scenario.

For less than $2, an expectant mom receives a safe birth calendar, which provides tips on how to prepare for birth, how to avoid risks and when to get outside help — crucial information when the Internet is not at your disposal! For $3, clean birth supplies are provided, including latex gloves, a needle and thread for stitches, sterile cotton wool. A $15 donation is enough to buy curtains for an entire maternity ward, providing much-needed privacy for laboring women, or it could even buy a cesarean section. “Every year, hundreds of thousands of women — often very young — spend days in agonizing labor, which often results in a dead baby and damaged mother [fistula] or in the deaths of both mother and child. All for want of an operation which costs about [$15],” WRA estimates.

WRA also promotes Mothers Day Every Day, a campaign which calls for greater leadership in the United States to strengthen health systems and increase skilled health workers in communities where women die for lack of care. The differences between the haves and have nots are stark: In Niger, a woman’s lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth is 1 in 7; in the U.S., her risk is 1 in 4,800. The campaign has struck a chord with numerous celebrity moms, including Christy Turlington Burns, who recently penned an op-ed on the issue for The Huffington Post.

“As I celebrate mothers on this Mother’s Day, I am reminded of how fortunate those of us who have access to healthcare are and I am hopeful that those who do not, will, in the foreseeable future. The importance of our global commitment to mothers in need, as well as their family’s is crucial — we must remember that as a worldwide community, we can help provide the support they deserve.”

“For me, being a mother goes well beyond the creature comforts of home (which I am blessed, as a mom, to have) and extends to a greater sisterhood in which we share the common role as mother. Join me as I celebrate mothers around the world with the hope that soon every mother will be honored with that basic human right of being able to give new life, while ensuring both her safety and the safety of her family.”

For more information on WRA and to learn about how you can help, click here.

— Missy

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