Money, Sex, Power and Death: Making Change With Media and Champions, the WRA Way
By Brigid McConville, Creative Director, WRA UK
Have you ever noticed how the same story crops up again and again in the media, but in different forms; stories of money, sex, power, death? The details are different, but the themes are universal.
That’s why our story, the story of people uniting to keep girls and women safe in pregnancy and birth, is so gripping. It starts with sex. The outcome often depends on money and the power to make choices and access quality health care. Death is the penalty for society’s neglect of women.
Yet there’s a paradox here. Our story is compelling, but because we are pressing for change — essentially the empowerment of women and girls — we pose a challenge to most established media and their commercial and male dominated interests.
There’s another problem of our own making. As birth has widely been regarded as a ‘health’ issue, rather than one of rights and social justice, it has too often been weighed down by technical language and development jargon.
So how do we reclaim our story, re-connect head with heart, evidence with passion, how do we use and work with the media to build our movement for change?
One way is to harness the darlings of the media — celebrities, sports stars, political leaders. Another is to make our own ‘social’ media, creating a groundswell of public outrage at the neglect of women and girls, until mainstream media detect the hunger for the stories which people care about.
I first came across White Ribbon Alliance India in coverage of their 2001 march to the Taj Mahal — that iconic memorial of a young bride who died in childbirth. A powerful symbolic juxtaposition which attracted film stars and therefore world media. Brilliant!
Back then, according to the UK media, deaths in childbirth in India (or anywhere other than an English hospital) were ‘not news’. If only we could harness the lure of glamour and power to convince the media otherwise.
Meanwhile Sarah Brown, in the media spotlight as wife of the UK Prime Minister, had tragically discovered for herself the hazards of birth and the agony of losing a baby. Our paths had subsequently crossed during meetings at the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in London, which she was supporting in its international work. When I asked her to support the work of WRA too, I got an immediate response: come to 10 Downing street and we’ll work together to ‘make some noise’.
The timing was perfect. The Browns were meeting world leaders, attending G8 summits, pushing for progress on development goals and keen to point out the inertia around maternal health. But where were the voices of women and communities to put their case and claim their rights?
In 2007, a tidal wave of extraordinary stories from White Ribbon Alliance members arrived in London. Communities had sent in over a hundred ‘quilts’ and other fabric images to commemorate their own girls and women who had died in childbirth. I will never forget that spine-tingling day when Betsy McCallon, Theresa Shaver (WRA’s current CEO and Founder, respectively), and I unwrapped one package after another in the hallowed halls of the RCOG (who kindly gave us the space). The images and stories came from Burkina Faso and Tanzania, from Bangladesh and Nepal, from dozens of villages and cities across Africa and Asia where the devastation of childbirth deaths was a daily reality.
Each one was a collective, hand-made, tangible testimony to loss and grief. There were big stitched canvasses, delicate batiks, paintings on cloth, elaborate quilts — each one as unique, vivid and as heart-breakingly lovely as the woman who had died.
Those images became an art exhibition, ‘Stories of Mothers Lost’, attracting influential guests, political leaders and donors at the RCOG and then at No 10 Downing Street during the Women Deliver London conference.
We made the exhibition into a book, which Sarah Brown showed to visitors including leading model Naomi Campbell. She in turn organised a fashion show which raised millions for WRA. The media loved Naomi and Sarah and their A-list friends — actors and footballers, singers and models. Journalists were constantly on the phone for radio, TV and print coverage.
However, media coverage is not a good thing in itself (indeed it can be a great waste of time); we wanted it to increase our profile and reputation, to attract members and encourage donors, to show policy makers that people care — and it did.
For instance, the influential UK Charity, Comic Relief, chose maternal health as one of their key issues for the fundraising Red Nose Day. We took them to meet WRA Malawi where we filmed in Bwaila maternity ward with a much-loved British TV star. When that footage was shown on the BBC, I was told that public donations spiked to a new high. And crucially, politicians took note. It was clear that the public cared. There were potential votes in that. We subsequently met with leaders of all the political parties, in Downing Street and in Westminster; we had lunch with Ban Ki Moon and Desmond Tutu — and more journalists.
The momentum continued across the pond, where glitzy dinners took place in Washington D.C. and New York, hosted by Queens, corporate bosses, Huffingtons, fashionistas, Murdochs and Trumps; sometimes we supped with a long spoon, but the voices of women were being heard, and WRA membership and donations grew.
Of course, the media attention didn’t last — and it didn’t need to. We had more than achieved what we set out to do in terms of raising profile and supporters. Crucially, the political landscape had changed and for the first time there was a global strategy in place for women’s and children’s health and maternal deaths had gone down by nearly half. There was still a huge need for funds, and for accountability, but mostly that had to happen at national level, not in the UK.
Fast forward to 2017. A decade later and again I was standing in the RCOG unwrapping pictures. This time it was a photographic collection called ‘Spaces of Sanctuary’ to be shared with media, influencers and the public. But now the stories were about women who had come to the UK as asylum seekers, only to find themselves denied access to safe and decent maternity care which is no longer free to all who need it. Again, I was putting the case that this was a matter of human rights; that all women, wherever they are from, have a universal right to respectful care in childbirth.
Sarah Brown — no longer in Downing Street — was there, mentioning the grass roots work of WRA on International Women’s Day, as we talked about refugee/migrant women’s births.
Back then we were advocating for the rights of women to a safe birth mostly in Africa and Asia, holding leaders accountable for their pledges to the Millennium Development Goals for maternal and newborn health. Now, WRA UK is advocating for the rights of women fleeing to this country and in need of sanctuary during pregnancy and birth, and it’s here in the UK where their rights are disrespected. Under the new Sustainable Development Goals which apply to all countries, we are holding the UK government and other leaders to account for their neglect of women and girls on home turf.
It’s still a struggle to convince the media to tell this story, but as recent elections results have suggested, it doesn’t matter so much anymore. Social media and personal connections with key decision makers can be more powerful these days, especially given the rabid hostility to migrants in some parts of the UK media. WRA in the UK is not so glitzy or high profile as we once were but what a relief! We can put our energies into making sure women’s voices are heard through our own channels, using film and video, photography and events. So it’s still all about sex and death, money and power — but we speak to that in our own way, in our own voice.