Liya Kebede on Maternal Health
The top model speaks out
You may recognize Liya Kebede from the countless magazine covers, runways, and ad campaigns she’s graced since breaking out as a top supermodel in the early 2000s. You might also recognize her from her roles in The Good Shepherd and Desert Flower, which raised awareness about female circumcision in the developing world. Others may know of Kebede from their time lusting after artisan-sourced sundresses or woven Oxfords in her clothing line, LemLem. But it’s Kebede’s tireless work for the UN and her own non profit foundation that may ultimately have the furthest reach. Through The Liya Kebede Foundation, the Ethiopian-born activist raises awareness and provides much-needed support for expectant and new mothers in the developing world. The international humanitarian shares stories about the complicated and under-discussed issues facing maternal health. —Artie Niederhoffer
Tell us about the work you do with the World Health Organization (WHO) as Global Ambassador for Maternal Newborn and Child Health. How did you get involved?
WHO came to me because they wanted to raise awareness for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Heath (MNCH). As a mother who is from Ethiopia, they thought I would be a perfect match. During my time as a WHO ambassador, I used the opportunity to become a vocal advocate for health, empowerment, and development in causes impacting women.
What inspired you to create The Liya Kebede Foundation?
I started the foundation because I found the statistics regarding the number of women who were dying during childbirth absolutely devastating. The Foundation works closely with well-respected organizations such as the Gates Foundation, WHO, UNICEF, and the White Ribbon Alliance. The experience of combining international advocacy with on-the-ground work in affected areas has been remarkable.
What issues face mothers giving birth in developing countries that mothers in the first world do not face? Giving birth is one of the most joyous gifts to a mother. But sadly in developing countries, giving birth can mean death. Pregnancy and childbirth is one of the main reasons that mothers die in developing countries; they die from preventable or treatable conditions because they do not have any access to basic medical care. The Liya Kebede Foundation is committed to ensuring that every woman, no matter where she lives, has access to life-saving care. Saving mothers' lives requires the strategic coordination and deployment of resources, skilled doctors and midwives, ambulances, roads, clean sheets and basic medical tools, just to name a few.
Does your own experience as mother-of-two inform your work?
Being a mother puts things in perspective and informs everything that I do. It makes everything hit much closer to home. What about your experience as a native of Ethiopia? Does coming from that part of the world make you a more effective activist there? Being born and raised in Ethiopia, I have helplessly witnessed the devastation a family goes through when a mother dies, many times. Living in the Unites States now I see and understand that we can prevent the deaths of those mothers.
Your website states that 99% of deaths during childbirth occur in developing countries. What are some implications of that figure?
Most women around the world do not deliver in clinics or hospitals; this is due to the lack of access, the lack of education among the communities, and the lack of policy makers and international donors that focus on maternal health. The statistics show a devastating need for well-equipped and well-staffed hospitals in developing countries.
What have been the Foundation’s greatest successes?
This year we have successfully equipped a maternity center in the Hawassa region in Ethiopia and have helped train the staff so that the women in the community can have access to quality care. The center started as a pilot program and aims to be an example for other similar maternity centers across the country. What have been some of the biggest obstacles in fighting for maternal health? Simply making ourselves heard. So much of what we do is about getting the word out, and to do that we need as many voices to band together as possible. The lack of commitment from policy makers and international donors is always a challenge.
How can other moms help improve global maternal health?
Getting the word out is essential, and donating to the Liya Kebede Foundation is a great way to make your voice heard as well. Even as little as $1 provides a woman with a dose of medicine that can stop a hemorrhage, which is the leading cause of death for mothers.
You have a gorgeous clothing line that brings hand-woven pieces from artisans in Ethiopia to high-end fashion boutiques. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind Lemlem? The inspiration arose during a trip home to Ethiopia with my husband, Kassy. While we were there we visited groups of traditional weavers who no longer had a market for their goods. Seeing this inspired me to start Lemlem to preserve this traditional art form while simultaneously creating job opportunities. Our hope is to add diversity to the fashion market while fueling prosperity in another.
What is your favorite way to spend time with your own kids?
I love traveling with them a lot. It is always heartwarming to see them blossom and grow right in front of my eyes.