Maternal health must focus more on girls-Christy Turlington

Friday, 6 December 2013 18:37 GMT

Christy Turlington Burns, a model and maternal health advocate, at Thomson Reuters Foundation conference in London December 3 2013 THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Magda Mis

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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As governments debate a new agenda ahead of the 2015 expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the health needs of adolescent mothers must be addressed, U.S. model and maternal health advocate Christy Turlington Burns said.  

Following her panel discussion at the Trust Women conference in London this week, Turlington Burns spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about the post-2015 development agenda and the shortcomings of the English language in discussing maternal and female health.

Q In your work on maternal health, what have you learned about the unintended consequences of policy that might be applicable to designing a more effective maternal health goal for the post-2015 agenda?

A One thing I worry about is lumping reproductive rights into the health category because it restricts them. In the 5th Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on improving maternal health, there’s goal A and goal B. Goal A is to improve maternal health and then to reduce maternal deaths. Goal B is to make comprehensive access to reproductive healthcare universal. B is already the one that gets skipped over.

It’s a tricky thing because it would be hard to make reproductive health a focus on its own. It needs to be tied to other things, like equity and education. Those two combined lead to more equitable access to healthcare, reproductive rights and everything else. But I don’t know where we’re going to land with the post-2015 agenda. And, as much as people are critical about the MDGs and what’s next, I think that they have done a really good job in laying a foundation for unifying eight seemingly different issues and interweaving them together in a way that most people can make sense of and get their head around. 

Q What would you like to see happen as part of the post-2015 development agenda with respect to maternal health?

A More attention on adolescent girls. I think when you talk about maternal health, there’s this assumption that these are women that are fully adult and married and they’re not. Sixty percent of maternal mortality cases are girls aged 15 to 19 and there aren’t services for that group of women. As much conversation as there is around young girls in the last few years, they are not represented. They’re not children. They’re not moms in the classical sense. Yet that’s who we’re losing. They don’t have access to enough services and education in the U.S. and in most countries. 

Q You mentioned that (former Somaliland politician) Edna Adan Ismail had made a point about family planning policy earlier today that you felt was important. Could you elaborate?

A She talked about how the conversation on family planning can be geared so much around women. She said that in Somaliland “we don’t talk about family planning, we just say ‘spacing’ because the translation of the English phrase would never actually work in Somaliland.” To get men to think about family planning, she says “your wife has just had her sixth child, she’s had a caesarean section and she needs time before she gets pregnant again.  Have as many children as you want, she doesn’t care. What her concern is, is ‘spacing’.” That’s more the conversation that has to happen in certain countries. Sometimes it’s the language that trips us up. It happens all the time. Family planning as a translated sentence or phrase is not fluid enough, it’s not flexible enough.

Q Do you think language itself could be an obstacle to realising the MDGs? 

A Absolutely. Take female genital mutilation, for example. I sat in on a conversation last March at the UN and heard the deliberation around the phrase “harmful traditional practices.” People were concerned about the use of the word “tradition,” saying that everything traditional should not be considered harmful. In trying to make it appealing to everyone to get consensus, you inevitably shut some people out based on those choices of words. And the English language is much more limiting than many other languages. 

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