African First Ladies' Health Summit & Gala Press Conference
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 16: (L-R) Actors Billy Zane and Danny Glover, Founder of U.S. Doctors for Africa, Ted Alemayhu, and Executive Secretary, African Synergy Against AIDS and Suffering, Jean Stephane Biatcha watch as actress Sharon Stone (C) speaks at a press conference announcing the African First Ladies' Health Summit & Gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 16, 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)
Africa's First Ladies at LA Summit
Source LA Times; By Lillian Aluanga
They sashayed down red carpets, adorned in a mix of stylish suits and colourful African wraps.
Among them were a trained lawyer, psychiatric nurse, teacher and founders of charitable organisations, now turned First Ladies of about 15 African countries.
Whether hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities, attending press conferences or presenting reports at plenary sessions, one thing was clear.
Africa's First Ladies were in Los Angeles, California on a mission.
It was the first ever meeting of African First Ladies to be held in the US, and the group did not disappoint.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga's wife, Ida, with super model Naomi Campbell at the Beverly Hilton hotel, LA, California. Africa's First Ladies were honoured for their contribution in promoting healthcare services.
[PHOTO: COURTESY PMPS]
Beyond the glamour this group of high-ranking women had travelled to "The City of Angels" to share their experiences on issues of maternal and child healthcare, girls' education and HIV/Aids in a two-day Africa First Ladies Health Summit held between April 20 and 21.
The Summit was organised by US Doctors for Africa and African Synergy Against Aids and Suffering- an NGO formed by 22 African First Ladies.
"The Summit is being held at a critical time when the effects of the global economic recession are filtering to African countries which already face the burden of HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, and high food prices," said Mrs Ida Odinga, Kenya's representative at the Summit.
First Lady Lucy Kibaki did not attend the meeting.
Ida challenged First Ladies to take the lead in raising the profile of health, HIV/Aids and the importance of developing comprehensive approaches to confront them.
Notable among those present at the two day meeting was a crop of African First Ladies, who are trained professionals, keen on using their skills and influential positions, to bring change to their countries.
"As first ladies, people listen to us, people want to see us, the crowd goes with us... We are close to these presidents... Whatever we tell them sticks in their heads," said Sierra Leone's First Lady Sia Nyama Koroma.
Koroma, credited for her work in improving the mortality rate of mothers, is a trained psychiatric nurse who studied while exiled in Britain during decades of civil strife in the West African nation.
"No woman should die giving life. That is the legacy I want to leave for Sierra Leone," said Koroma.
Founded over six years ago, the African Synergy Against Aids and Suffering was birthed by the coming together of 22 First Ladies who appreciated the uniqueness of their positions and chose to build alliances that would direct resources to their populations' most pressing needs. Key among these are maternal healthcare, HIV/Aids and girls education.
The brainchild of Cameroon's First Lady Chantal Biya, the organisation has, since its inception, seen several African First Ladies honoured for their contributions under its mandate. Its key initiatives include the founding of at least 55 PMTCT (Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV) sites equipped with anti-retroviral drugs, HIV/Aids counselling and rapid test diagnostics in Guinea, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Burundi and Cameroon.
For many of those present at the Summit, the impression often created that a good number of these First Ladies were only interested in shopping and lavish lifestyles, was discounted as they got down to business presenting detailed reports and exhibiting first hand knowledge of the issues on the ground.
"Developing partnerships with the education sector will give us significant mileage in preventing maternal and child mortality in the long term," said Ida, wife to Kenya's PM Raila Odinga.
She cited inadequate, inaccessible and unaffordable medical care, lack of sanitation, unsafe drinking water, poor nutrition, inadequate research and education on women's health practices and gender related conflicts as factors that compromised women's health in Kenya.
"More than 15 per cent of women suffer life threatening complications due to pregnancy and childbirth related causes... Poor maternal nutrition in pregnancy has resulted in about 11 per cent of children in Kenya being born with low birth weight.
Ida noted that despite an apparent decline in the prevalence of HIV Aids infections to 5.1 per cent in 2006, there is still a high incidence across all age groups with between 86,000 and 100,000 new infections registered per year.
As a way forward, Ida proposed support for projects to distribute lap desks, provision of sanitary towels for girls and advocacy of laws that prohibit early marriages as well as provision of mobile clinics to supplement the Government's efforts in preventing unnecessary deaths due to delays in accessing medical facilities in rural areas.
Ida, Cameroon's Chantal, Biya and Nigeria's Turai Yar' Adua were among those who agreed to have teams of experts come to their countries to take a critical look at their programmes.
Unlike other Summits, the Los Angeles forum did not set goals nor concentrate on describing the magnitude of problems bedevilling Africa, but rather the pragmatics of how to effect change.
"What I love about this conference is that they called us saying: "We are here for you, how can we assist?" said Inkhosikati LaMbikiza, one of at least 13 wives of Swaziland's King Mswati III.
"A lot of the time you find women who are in positions of influence, but they do not use them," she said. "Summits such as these help to sensitise ourselves: Do you realise where you are placed... you can move mountains."
La Mbikiza is among those who have broken with convention for royal wives and is a qualified lawyer who has devoted considerable energy to charitable work.
At hand to deliver the keynote address during the Summit was Mrs Sarah Brown, wife to Britain's Premier Gordon Brown, who highlighted the need to scale up maternal health issues as a means of meeting the Millennium Development Goals.
Ida noted that the competition for resources among many priorities in African countries posed a challenge to national budgets, subsequently affecting the delivery of health services.
"Despite the Abuja commitments of 2001 no country in Africa has reached the 15 per cent of the National budget earmarked for health, nearly a decade after Heads of States and Governments signed the declaration," she said.
While this was not the first meeting of Africa's First Ladies, it was the first of such to be held in the US, and was graced by Hollywood celebrities including Sharon Stone, Robin Wright Penn and Diane Lane.
At hand to offer their expertise and support to Africa's leading ladies in addressing health issues was the World Health Organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as Chevron and Exxon Mobil.
But beyond the discussions, the touch of flamboyance and flair at the forum was difficult to miss. It came in the exotic colour combinations and signature "la banane" hairdo worn by Chantal Biya, to the stylish designer sunglasses, suit and heels donned by Swaziland's Queen Inkhosikati LaMbikiza to the elegant boubou spotted by Niger's Hadija Tandja.
There was however a solemn moment at the Summit when participants paid tribute to two First Ladies who have since died- Susan Tsvangirai, wife to Zimbabwe's PM Morgan Tsvangirai and former Gabon's First Lady Edith Lucie Bongo Ondimba.
Away from the rigours of discussions, the First Ladies were treated to a private tour of the SONY movie studios where they sampled the Award winning "Pray the Devil Back to Hell", a movie by Abby Disney and Gini Reticker.
The film celebrates the efforts of Liberian women who stood for peace at a time of conflict in the nation.
A Gala Night hosted in honour of the First Ladies also saw them feted with awards by Mrs Brown. Other First Ladies present at the Summit included those from Namibia, Zambia, Cape Verde, Angola, Tanzania, Lesotho and Mozambique. Also in attendance was Maria Shriver, wife to California Governor and former Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
-Additional information, LA Times
Experts from the World Health Organization, Gates Foundation, U.S. Agency for International Development, World Bank and RAND were among those who participated in round-table discussions alongside the first ladies.