As a young and independent-minded nurse midwife, Theresa Shaver set out from the USA to Mauritania. There, she worked in remote desert areas, sharing and learning from the traditional Mauritanian midwife who became her mentor. Theresa went on to offer her skills to women in the most need – in Ethiopia during a time of war and in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s brutal regime. She helped countless women through childbirth, returning to the USA after nearly two decades to find that maternal deaths were still a hidden scandal, and the voices of women were largely unheard.
With a small group of friends and colleagues, Theresa set out to create a movement of change, with the white ribbon as its symbol (white for hope, and also signifying death in many cultures).
White Ribbon Alliance launched in 1999 as an informal coalition of NGOs, donors and their global partners who wanted to generate worldwide attention and make safe motherhood a priority for all.
In 2002, India led the way in a White Ribbon Alliance march to the Taj Mahal, an iconic memorial to the Shah’s young wife who died in childbirth centuries ago. The march attracted thousands of supporters, celebrities, ordinary women, health workers, and the media. The government of India began to listen. Policies were changed to allow nurses in India’s half a million villages to perform life-saving procedures. In time, women won the right to free health care in childbirth. The death rates began to go down.
One midwife from Tanzania heard what was happening and went to Delhi to find out more. She came back home to form the White Ribbon Alliance of Tanzania.
Over a decade later, many thousands of individuals and organizations have joined the White Ribbon Alliance. Thirteen countries have established National Alliances and these National Alliances are at the forefront of this change.
White Ribbon Alliance President and Founder, Theresa Shaver:
“Many years ago in Cambodia, I remember that there was a beautiful, modern health facility there that was known as the ‘ghost clinic.’ The local population considered that you died there and that your spirits stayed inside. There was no connection with the local community when the clinic was being built, and therefore, they did not feel that the hospital truly belonged to them. From this experience, I learned that to succeed, you need to have a connection with the community and empower them to take ownership of the change.
Upon starting the White Ribbon Alliance in 1999, I made it my mission to ensure that the WRA empowers individuals and organisations on the ground to lead change in their own communities when it comes to matters of maternal health”.