This month MIDIRS has a chat with Nancy Durrell McKenna, founder director of SafeHands for Mothers, the charity whose vision is to realise a world where no woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth.
Nancy is also an award-winning photographer and film-maker, who has spent most of her professional life documenting the lives, rituals and traditions of women and families around the world.
In recent years her work has focused on the theme of safe motherhood in developing countries.
Her impressive body of work has been produced in many countries in collaboration with international NGOs and Governmental Agencies, including British Council, UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO, Save the Children, OXFAM and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
Nancy has contributed to numerous photographic exhibitions and in 2013 had a Guardian-sponsored photographic exhibition, A Decade In Africa at King’s Place, London. She has worked with leading authors on books about pregnancy, birth, child development and sexuality.
Her pioneering film Birth: Eight Women’s Stories, which she filmed and directed, won a Gold Award at the International New York Film and Television Festival in 1993 and has been used widely in maternity hospitals in the UK.
Hello, Nancy. Your story is amazing and the work you do is such an inspiration. Can you tell us about your background and how your interest in photography and film-making first started?
Nancy: It followed a circuitous fashion. After completing a degree in Education at McGill University in Montreal, I took a summer course in printmaking in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where my husband was doing a medical elective. I was enrolled to do a Masters in Special Education, specialising in the blind. The stimulus of the summer course changed my plans and I enrolled and completed a degree in Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal. I quickly realised that I was not a painter or a sculptor, but the first time I held a camera I was hooked. It was the tool I needed to enter and explore others lives, be creative and make a difference.
How did your interest in safe motherhood in developing countries come about?
It was a photographic commission from Oxfam that sealed my passion for safe motherhood. My brief was to document the various aspects of community development from health to agriculture. I may have been photographing irrigation, but I found the one woman breastfeeding her child in that ditch. That passion for the mother and child, further stimulated by my own pregnancies and the births of our two sons, has evolved and broadened over 25 years – a never-ending journey through 50 countries.
Can you tell us how SafeHands for Mothers first started, and what inspired you to set up the charity?
In 1999 I was commissioned by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) to do an in-depth photographic reportage to highlight their Safe Motherhood projects in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. CIDA invited me to present that body of work at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, during International Development week. The then Minister of Development, Diane Marloe, whispered in my ear that she could only stay for a minute. Not only did she stay for the whole presentation, but also for the Q&A afterwards.
That became my epiphany. The power of the visual to CHANGE – a change that can lead to improving and investing more in maternal & newborn health. That epiphany resulted in my founding SafeHands for Mothers in 2003.
Our vision is a world where no woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth. We work to achieve this through the production of visuals: documentaries that raise awareness of important issues which impact hugely on safe motherhood such as Female Genital Mutilation, Obstetric Fistula, Child Marriage, Family Planning and HIV/AIDS, as well as training films that educate and inspire frontline health workers, women and their communities.
These visual means of communication are fundamental in disseminating vital health messages when dealing with high rates of illiteracy. They can be shown in remote and isolated areas, where there is little or no electricity, through our innovative solar powered media players, carried in backpacks and weighing less than 6kgs.
Can you share with us details of your current work?
In 2013 we were awarded a three-year Comic Relief grant for our Making Pregnancy Safer project in Ethiopia, with our partners The Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia. The project, now in its second year, aims to reduce the number of mothers and babies dying in pregnancy and childbirth. We’ve produced two new films, which will be shown by frontline health workers in rural communities, using our innovative solar-powered media players.
In partnership with The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and UNICEF Sierra Leone, we’re also producing a film to highlight the impact that the Maternal & Newborn initiative (availability of quality EOC in hospitals) has on the lives of women.
How do you see the work of SafeHands progressing in future?
We want to grow new partnerships, make more films which raise awareness, inspire and educate so that we see the numbers of maternal and newborn death significantly reduced. That is a future worth working towards.
In the ten years since SafeHands was established the numbers have halved; 800 women now die from problems in pregnancy or childbirth, and 8,500 babies die every day. That’s 300,000 women and 3 million babies, every year. Progress has been made in the decade, but the numbers are still shocking. There is much to do.
In an ideal world we need more MIDWIVES, people with skill and compassion, who are willing to work in remote and isolated areas. We also need to modify and ideally eliminate the harmful aspects of some traditional practices, ie. child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation.
When you are away from work, how do you spend your time relaxing?
Nancy: Walking is my pleasure. Just give me a good pair of walking shoes and I’m off. I’m currently ‘in training’ for our SafeHands for Mothers fundraiser in celebration of the end of our first decade. Friends and supporters (and my 10-month-old grandson Zac in a backpack) are setting out on 9th June to walk the Dales Way Walk, 86 miles from Ilkley in Yorkshire to Bowness on Windermere in the Lake District. The funds are vital to the work of SafeHands.
About SafeHands for Mothers
Please do look at our very visual website.
If you are interested in taking part in our Dales Way Walk for Life Fundraiser, please contact Lucy on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7433 0792.
If you would like to support my personal walk, giving could not be easier. Click here.