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African First Ladies Champion Women’s Health and Rights at US Summit

The African First Ladies Health Summit was held on April 20–21 in Los Angeles, California bringing together first ladies from 15 countries to address preventing HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria; improving nutrition for children and pregnant women; and promoting the education of girls in Africa.[i] The meeting, organized by U.S. Doctors for Africa and African Synergy Against AIDS and Suffering, a charity founded by 22 African first ladies, also included experts from the World Health Organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and RAND Corporation.[ii]
One of the main goals of the meeting, which included the first ladies of Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Swaziland, and Zambia, was to facilitate international cooperation on these pressing issues. The summit was designed to help first ladies leverage their power for the empowerment of broader populations of women in their own countries and throughout the African continent. Queen Inkhosikati LaMbikiza of Swaziland commented that the Summit was a special opportunity for the first ladies to bring about change in their home countries, telling the Los Angeles Times, “A lot of the time you find women who are in positions of influence, but they do not use them.” She continued, “Summits such as these help to sensitize ourselves: do you realize where you are placed…you can move mountains?”[iii] Cora Neumann of U.S. Doctors for Africa explained, “First ladies have a unique role. They exist outside the political realm to some degree but have a very powerful role in their communities….” Gery Ryan, RAND senior behavioral scientist, added that these women represent a potential resource for the global health community, saying, “The first ladies are probably one of the largest untapped influences and influencers in these places.”[iv]
Holding this event in the United States reaffirms the strong relationship between the United States and countries in Africa and the new U.S. commitment to global health and the fight against HIV/AIDS, as well as women’s health and rights. The Honorable Melanne Verveer, who was recently appointed to the new post of U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, addressed the gathering on the first day of the Summit.  “Health is not a small problem and the persistent gender inequality contributes to women and girls suffering the most,” she said. “Investing in women has to be at the core of any strategy to attack health disparities and the lack of opportunities.”[v]

[i] Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, “Africa’s first ladies urge education, health care,” Associated Press, 21 April 2009, accessed 7 May 2009 <>.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Alexandra Zavis, “For African first ladies, health issues are a chance to remake their image,” Los Angeles Times, 22 April 2009,0,456625.story,  accessed 7 May 2009.

[iv] Zavis, “For African first ladies, health issues are a chance to remake their image.”

[v] Mac, “The African First Ladies Health Summit Tackles Women’s Health, Education and HIV/AIDS.”