LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) – Fifteen first ladies from Africa gathered at the Skirball Cultural Center April 20-21 for the unprecedented “African First Ladies’ Health Summit 2009” to address critical issues of health and education facing women and girls on the continent.
The closed working summit was hosted by U.S. Doctors for Africa, a Los Angeles-based non-profit, humanitarian group, which provides medical and other assistance to suffering regions of Africa, and by African Synergy Against AIDS and Suffering, a charitable organization supported by 22 African first ladies, which advocates for maternal and child health, girls’ education and economic empowerment.
Her Excellency Chantal Biya of Cameroon founded African Synergy in 2002, based on her Chantal Biya Foundation’s efforts to address education and HIV/AIDS.
In addition to Cameroon, the first ladies also traveled all the way from Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia.
They met with health policy experts, medical professionals, and celebrity activists to discuss how to enhance their roles to achieve greater health and education in their respective countries. The women also highlighted their personal concerns about health and education and practical approaches to improving both systems in their countries.
Ethiopian-born Ted Alemayhu, founder and executive chairman of U.S. Doctors for Africa, told The Final Call that he co-created the summit because he is an African.
“I have been a part of all the challenges and suffering that my brothers and sisters have gone through. I’ve had the privilege to come to America and been given the opportunity to tap into unbelievable resources, so I wanted to use that to my own benefit and share some of the deep stories that Africa’s facing and inspire people to either go to Africa and help individually, as a group, as a corporation, as a foundation,” he explained.
From the summit, the first ladies and summit partners have committed in part to build more effective health systems through joint advocacy efforts, to emphasize the integral role of women as caregivers, role models and providers for children, families and communities by advancing education, economic empowerment and civic engagement; and creating high impact programs to reach urban and rural areas.
Jean StÃ©phane Biatcha, executive secretary of African Synergy, said the conference goal, to raise awareness about the first ladies’ humanitarian commitments in Africa, was succeeded beyond his expectations.
“They want to show that they are not substitutes. What they do is complimentary to their governments’ efforts … most of the problems that they face are similar, like maternal health, the education of girls, the fight against HIV/AIDS, this is a very prevailing concern,” Mr. Biatcha told The Final Call about the joint work of the first ladies through African Synergy and the Leadership Health Summit.
The forum is just one part of the larger partnership forged by U.S. Doctors for Africa and African Synergy. Future plans include discussions on partnerships, on medical and technical resources, equipment and the like, Mr. Biatcha said.
For Queen Inkhosikati LaMbikiza of Swaziland, networking at the summit was her greatest desire. “I had all the greatest expectations and they were met because I’ve learned a lot from the work all the other first ladies are busy with. Some problems that we all encounter as Africans we deal with differently. Others deal better with them than others, so for me it’s a learning curve and I think the best part is getting the partnerships. My prayer is that they will have a lasting effect and bring to fruition all our aspirations,” she told The Final Call immediately following a star-studded April 21 benefit in honor of the first ladies at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Her Excellency Sia Nyama Koroma of Sierra Leone said Africa expects this kind of leadership from the United States for obvious reasons and she welcomed the summit to explore supporting her work. She sees the attention as a way to raise the profile of issues the wives of African leaders are dealing with.
She presented her country’s experiences during the “Moving Beyond Rhetoric to Improve Women’s Lives” panel, which was moderated by actress Sharon Stone on day two of the Summit.
Mrs. Koroma said she specifically targets the welfare of women and children in Sierra Leone because they are most prone to exclusion from vaccines and face disadvantages. Years of civil war have created a breakdown in the structure and fabric of society, leaving behind a dilapidated health infrastructure, low educational standards and fragmented family values, she said.
Because Sierra Leone has the worst infant mortality rate in the world, Mrs. Koroma told participants, she has sought the help of religious and traditional leaders to help change behavior and attitudes with regard to women’s health.
“We found out that a significant number of maternal deaths are due to delays in accessing health care or indeed the reluctance to attend hospitals for antenatal and postnatal supervision, including delivery. So through our work with traditional and religious leaders, they are now enacting bylaws making it punishable by fines to families where pregnant women are not encouraged to attend hospitals for treatment,” she said.
Her Excellency Penehupifo Pohamba of Namibia said that health is a reality that affects every nation. As mothers and sisters, she said, women can only have a lasting legacy if they engage themselves in the struggle against diseases.
“I come from a large country with a small population. This however, does not make us immune to the challenges brought about by illnesses, including the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Maternal and child health, therefore, remains a key preoccupation of our government,” Mrs. Pohamba said.
According to Mrs. Pohamba, Namibia has experienced an increase in the number of children suffering maternal deaths. According to the Namibian Demographic Survey of 2006-2007, she said, the maternal mortality ratio increased from 271 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2002 to 449 per 1,000 live births in 2006-2007.
Health promotion and education, HIV counseling and testing, prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV, malaria prevention treatment and improving nutrition and immunization are some solutions to the problem, she said.
Dr. Sarah Moten, chief of the Education Division for the United States Agency for International Development, said one way the first ladies can continue to improve girls’ education and health is to continue to pursue all girls’ issues within their governments.
It means ensuring girls have access to adequately equipped schools in their communities and that they have proper mentors, from teachers to the market women. “Continue to do what you’re doing, but do more and push for it,” Dr. Moten said.
After the panel, Dr. Moten told The Final Call she was happy to see the first ladies doing things to empower themselves and their nations. “These women are here because they’re sincere. They’re earnest. They really believe in what their missions are and they understand where they come from too. They weren’t first ladies all their lives.”
Celebrity guests attending an April 20 morning press conference included actresses Cicely Tyson, Sherrie Headly, Carmyn Manheim and Megalyn Echikunwoke. Maria Shriver, wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sarah Brown, wife of United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown, were among many dignitaries on hand for a special luncheon.
Several guests and volunteers at the summit expressed their desire to have seen U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama at the summit and are hopeful she might join the African first ladies for a summit in the United States next year.
Ms. Headly viewed the summit as a necessary vehicle for people to step outside of their own backyards to see what’s going on in Africa. Ms. Echikunwoke, who is Nigerian, said that her African heritage heightened the summit’s importance for her.
“This conference is the first of many hopefully, focusing on women and how we can strengthen them in terms of health care and education. African women have not had enough attention paid to them ever, so now we’re starting a dialogue about it and putting a lot of attention on it,” Ms. Echikunwoke told The Final Call during a red carpet interview.