Image: Liya Kebede
Courtesy of World Health Organization
Liya Kebede holds a baby while on a visit to Africa for the World Health Organization.
NBC News
updated 5/6/2009 11:13:02 AM ET 2009-05-06T15:13:02

Each month, we highlight a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This month we speak with supermodel, actress, WHO ambassador and mother, Liya Kebede, about her work on health issues related to childbirth. You may recognize Kebede as the former face of Estee Lauder or from the cover of magazines including Vogue’s May 2009 issue. Kebede, who is Ethiopian, founded her own organization to reduce mortality among mothers, newborns and young children and well as to help mothers and children stay healthy. The Liya Kebede Foundation promotes the use of low-cost technology and accessible medical care to help save lives during and after childbearing. The foundation also educates health-care workers and community members on children's health.Kebede also is a World Heath Organization ambassador, a position given to celebrities who advocate for health causes. In 2005, Kebede was named “Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.” Kebede also has a clothing line for children and women called “Lemlem,” which means to bloom or flourish in Amharic, the language of the Amhara people of Ethiopia. She hopes that the handwoven clothing from Ethiopia will continue native traditions as well as support local businesses and economies.

Q: Can you tell us about the Liya Kebede Foundation and its purpose?

Kebede: Right now, we have about one woman every minute of the day dying from childbirth and pregnancy complications in the world, and this is sort of very unheard of in the West. This happens a lot in the developing world. The reason is because women don’t really have access to very basic medical care, so most of these women are dying from very preventable or treatable conditions — simple things like an infection during childbirth will just kill the mother.

What we do in the foundation is we try to raise awareness of this issue because a lot of people don’t really realize that the number one killer of women in the world, in the developing world, is childbirth. You know, childbirth is something that is supposed to be this really beautiful and joyous moment in your life. For a lot women in the developing world, instead being this joyous moment that we experience here, it's filled with pain and it's filled with fear that they might actually lose their lives giving birth. So, that is why we created this foundation. We really want to raise awareness and help programs that support these causes.

Q: What made you become interested in the topic of children’s health and mortality rates among mothers and children?

Kebede: I am a mom I have two wonderful children and I am also from Ethiopia. Growing up there, it was really very normal to see and to hear about women dying in childbirth. It was very, very common. At the time, I actually thought it was a normal thing. Later, I came here and I was lucky enough to have my children in New York and I had the best medical care. The gap is ridiculous. Here, you’re not only in the best care, you get to have sonograms and you get to see if the baby is a boy or a girl. In a developing country, women deliver in a hut by themselves, a lot of times with nobody around. They might not even have clean water by them so any little thing might jeopardize their life or the baby’s life. This is something that I thought any mom, any woman who would hear this story, would feel the importance of it. So, that’s kind of how I got involved.

Q: Please describe your role as the Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Heath.

Kebede: I’ve been with the WHO since 2005. I’ve been their Goodwill Ambassador and we’ve been working a lot on raising awareness of this issue so that more and more people can actually hear about it and put pressure on governments to put a lot of budget earmarks on maternal health, because one of the other problems that we have is this one area is completely underfunded. One of the other problems that we have is this one area is completely underfunded and mothers dying is not something that can be put on the backburner. It's something that’s completely important not just for her life but her children’s life, for her family's life, for the community, for the whole country.

With the WHO we try to get international communities — the West, for instance — to really allocate more funding specifically for maternal health and also the local governments to allocate more funding for maternal health. That’s the kind of work that we want to do and help promote programs that are already existing that help women and children around the world.

Q: How does your clothing line, “Lemlem,” relate to your work with health and mortality?

Kebede:Lemlem is a different kind of aid. It's kind of a social entrepreneurship. The reason why Lemlem was created is I really wanted to help our local artisans, give them economic empowerment, give them jobs, give them money they can earn for themselves so they take care of themselves, instead of just handing out money. This is something that they’re actually earning so its makes it more sustainable. The Lemlem is made from handwoven materials. It's kind of an incredible art. I saw that that art was dying and all these artisans were sitting around not having a market for their beautiful work.

At the same time I think it's kind of beautiful to infuse the West with these beautiful hand-crafted garments. It's kind of a new thing for the West to get used to and also to give trust to the West as well that they can eventually go to places like Ethiopia and all these other different African countries and start manufacturing there so that we can really then boost the economy of the country. I’ve been lucky enough because in a way Lemlem becomes this perfect balance that brings the level of fashion that I have as a model [and] at the same time this possibility to improve the lives of other people. It's kind of a great bridge for me.

Q: What was your most memorable experience working with either your foundation, as an ambassador, or with your clothing line?

Kebede: There is this one story that I think says it all in a way. I was in Ethiopia visiting this town in Bahir Dar. We went to visit this woman who lives in her little hut with her five kids. She also had a granddaughter. She was about 30 years old but she looked like she was about 50. She was carrying her granddaughter with her and her daughter was away working. She had all these little kids at home who were hers. Her village was under a program that the Ministry of Health had started [where] they have two young girls who have graduated from high school and who had two years of intensive study and basic medical care take care of the village.

They come to the houses and talk to the women. They help them with prenatal and postnatal care. They make sure that if there’s a pregnancy at risk, they refer them to a hospital. So they’ve been doing this program with this woman and she’s not literate. She’s never gone to school. I was sitting and talking to her and I asked her what was happening with her daughters and if they were attending school. She said yes, absolutely, they’re going to school.

The daughters were about 11 or 12 years old. There’s a lot of early marriage issues in some of  those areas. She said to me, "Absolutely not. I’m not going to have my daughter marry anybody. I want her to finish school and if she wants to marry then it's her choice to marry." I was stunned to hear this coming from her, this woman who in her life was married early and had her children young. She really had no choice. It was the most unbelievable moment.

Then I asked her, "Are you going to have any more children?" She said, "Absolutely not." So I said, "Well, how are you going about not having children anymore?" She said, "I’m going to take my pill." She said to me, "All my life, you know, I thought I was there to give birth and now all of the sudden I have this choice and this power to not have a child if I don’t want to because I can't afford to." For her it was an incredible thing. I was just sitting there and thinking, "Oh my God, this is amazing." I always think about that story.

Q: How can people become involved?

Kebede: The biggest thing that people can do is let their governments know that saving mothers' lives should be a priority. Governments aren't going to invest unless we let them know that we care about this issue. There is a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives right now, H.R. 1410, that would make saving mothers' and children's lives a priority for U.S. foreign aid. Call or write your representative and tell them that you expect them to support this bill.  If politicians know their constituents care about this issue, they will care too. Or people can visit the Web site of the Mothers Day Every Day campaign and see how they can take action in their communities. 

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