in the po­si­tion to help

First ladies fo­cus on health care and ed­u­ca­tion for women and chil­dren.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FOOD - By S. INDRAMALAR

First ladies fo­cus on health care and ed­u­ca­tion for women and chil­dren.

EV­ERY one of the 15 first ladies at the inaugural First Ladies Sum­mit held in Kuala Lumpur last week wanted bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties for chil­dren – par­tic­u­larly in ed­u­ca­tion and health care – in their own coun­tries. The par­tic­i­pants came from four con­ti­nents – Africa (Ghana, Guinea Bis­sau, Mozam­bique, Sierra Leone, Nige­ria and Zam­bia), Asia (Malaysia, Laos, Mau­ri­tius, Sey­chelles and Sri Lanka), Europe (Al­ba­nia) and the Amer­i­cas (Paraguay in Latin Amer­ica and Kiri­bati in the Caribbean).

Five first ladies par­tic­i­pated in a panel ses­sion en­ti­tled Con­ver­sa­tions on the sec­ond day of the three-day sum­mit hosted by BBC pre­sen­ter Mishal Hus­sain. They were Thandiwe Banda from Zam­bia, Lorna Gold­ing from Ja­maica, Sia Nyama Koroma from Sierra Leone, Ernestina Naadu Mills from Ghana and Mercedes Lugo de Maidana from Paraguay.

At the end of the ses­sion, a dec­la­ra­tion was is­sued stat­ing their com­mit­ment to work to­gether to im­prove chil­dren’s wel­fare in their coun­tries. This cov­ered ed­u­ca­tion, fam­ily and com­mu­nity, and will serve as a frame­work for them to con­tinue with their ef­forts.

Among the goals iden­ti­fied were pro­vid­ing free com­pul­sory ed­u­ca­tion from early child­hood, equal ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for boys and girls, en­hanc­ing teacher-train­ing pro­grammes as well as en­sur­ing a bal­ance be­tween sci­ence, technology and math­e­mat­ics ed­u­ca­tion with lessons in the hu­man­i­ties and multi-lin­gual lit­er­acy.

There was also em­pha­sis on stu­dent devel­op­ment pro­grammes, such as stu­dent coun­cils and govern­ment, youth fo­rums and cul­tural ex­changes in view of de­vel­op­ing young lead­ers.

Un­like the four women on the panel, Mercedes Lugo de Maidana isn’t the spouse of a coun­try leader; she is the sis­ter of Paraguay Pres­i­dent Fer­nando Lugo, a Bishop posted to one of Paraguay’s most re­mote vil­lages who en­tered pol­i­tics.

“We come from a fam­ily of farm­ers. Dur­ing the dic­ta­tor­ship of Paraguay, we were marginalised for 35 years. I am in a very dif­fer­ent po­si­tion be­cause my brother was not a politician but a man of faith. He felt moved to serve his peo­ple and, as his sis­ter, that is also my duty. Ev­ery day, I have con­ver­sa­tions with my brother. We dis­cuss how we can best serve the peo­ple,” said de Maidana. Lugo was elected Pres­i­dent in 2008, end­ing a 61-year rule by the right­ist Colorado Party, the long­est-serv­ing po­lit­i­cal party in the world.

“We have been placed in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion but I know my po­si­tion to­day is cir­cum­stan­tial. I don’t have any fancy clothes or lead a fic­ti­tious life. I am just a farmer who has been as­signed a very im­por­tant role for my coun­try,” she added.

On the other hand, Sia Nyama Koroma, the First Lady of Sierra Leone, comes from a fam­ily with a his­tory in pol­i­tics. Her fa­ther, Aiah

A mother and her two-day-old baby boy in Free­town, Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone and across the world are suc­cess sto­ries of the bat­tle against ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity, in no small part due to the ef­forts of their coun­tries’ first ladies. Abu Koroma, was a lawyer who was a pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rant with the Demo­cratic Cen­tre Party.

Koroma has a Masters de­gree in syn­thetic or­ganic chem­istry as well as a nurs­ing de­gree from Kings Col­lege, London. Her ed­u­ca­tional back­ground and ex­po­sure to pol­i­tics early in life have un­doubt­edly pre­pared her well for her role as first lady, a role she as­sumed when her hus­band Dr Ernest Bai Koroma be­came Sierra Leone’s fourth demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent in 2007.

“Be­ing the first lady means that I have to some­times act as a go­b­e­tween for the pub­lic and the pres­i­dent. Peo­ple ask me to ar­range for them to see the pres­i­dent. I have to weigh (the is­sues) and de­cide which ones are suit­able to be pre­sented di­rectly to the Pres­i­dent,” she said.

Health is wealth

In­ter­est­ingly, the first ladies of Zam­bia, Ja­maica and Ghana have one thing in com­mon: they are all teach­ers. The youngest is Zam­bia’s first lady, Thandiwe Banda who, at 38, is her coun­try’s youngest ever first lady. Banda’s con­fi­dence and out­spo­ken­ness, how­ever, give the im­pres­sion that she has been first lady much longer than two years. (Her hus­band Ru­piah Banda be­came pres­i­dent in 2008.)

Ghana’s Ernestina Naadu Mills and Ja­maica’s Lorna Gold­ing both see their roles as an op­por­tu­nity to serve their coun­try.

“My pub­lic pro­file al­lows me to do some­thing about is­sues that are close to my heart,” Gold­ing said.

Mills com­mented that she par­tic­u­larly liked talk­ing to young girls and in­spir­ing them. “I tell them that if they stay in school, they can be any­one they want. I was work­ing as a di­rec­tor (of ed­u­ca­tion) be­fore I be­came first lady, so I tell them they can do any­thing, too.”

Health care was a com­mon con­cern shared by all five women. Koroma and Banda were par­ticu- larly concerned about ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity – the high death rate among women dur­ing or shortly af­ter preg­nancy.

In Sierra Leone, statis­tics (2009) showed that it had one of the high­est ma­ter­nal death rates in the world – about one in eight women risk dy­ing dur­ing preg­nancy or child­birth. Women of­ten bleed to death af­ter giv­ing birth, ei­ther in their own homes or on the way to hos­pi­tals be­cause ac­cess to health care is poor.

“Sierra Leone is a post-con­flict coun­try, and women and chil­dren suf­fer the most due to the poor in­fra­struc­ture. But we are us­ing devel­op­ment to con­sol­i­date peace and I am do­ing ev­ery­thing I can to com­ple­ment my hus­band’s work, ” said Koroma.

The sit­u­a­tion isn’t much bet­ter in Zam­bia where ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity rates are at 591 ca­su­al­ties per 100,000 births.

To im­prove con­di­tions for ex­pec­tant moth­ers, both Banda and Koroma are ac­tively cham­pi­oning the Cam­paign for Ac­cel­er­ated Re­duc­tion of Ma­ter­nal Mor­tal­ity in Africa (Car­mma), an African Union ini­tia­tive to dras­ti­cally re­duce ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity in the re­gion.

The cam­paign, which not only raises aware­ness but in­creases ac­cess to good health care, has yielded pos­i­tive re­sults in Sierra Leone.

“The num­ber (of ca­su­al­ties) has re­duced dras­ti­cally over the last three years since the cam­paign launch. This is with the help of the of­fice of the first lady, the United Na­tions as well as a plethora of part­ners that we work to­gether with,” added Koroma.

The cam­paign has also been re­ceived pos­i­tively in Zam­bia since it was in­tro­duced early this year, added Banda.

“Peo­ple are re­spond­ing well be­cause they can see that it saves lives. When we save the mother, we save the en­tire fam­ily be­cause one woman of­ten has four or five chil­dren,” shared Banda.

Ef­forts to im­prove ac­cess to health care are also sup­ple­mented by ef­forts to em­power women to be eco­nom­i­cally in­de­pen­dent.

“It’s im­por­tant that the women are healthy for their kids to be healthy, and for the moth­ers to be able to work so that their kids can go to school,” she said.

About 60% of Zam­bia’s agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion comes from work­ing moth­ers and Banda be­lieves that giv­ing women ac­cess to land own­er­ship is cru­cial.

“This year we ex­pe­ri­enced a bumper har­vest. This means more chil­dren will be able to go to school,” she ex­plained.

Ed­u­ca­tion is vi­tal

“Early devel­op­ment of chil­dren is es­sen­tial, not only to guide them into adult­hood, but so that they can be­come lead­ers to­mor­row. Each of us (first ladies) have such a dy­namic role and a most pow­er­ful tool at our dis­posal,” Gold­ing said.

To show her com­mit­ment to her cause, Gold­ing re­cently went back to school to pur­sue for­mal stud­ies in early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion at the Mico Uni­ver­sity in Ja­maica. She also ini­ti­ated the Ja­maica Early Child­hood Foun­da­tion which pro­motes im­proved ser­vices and re­sources for all Ja­maican chil­dren.

“All Ja­maican chil­dren should have ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and equal op­por­tu­nity to de­velop their full po­ten­tial. Where my chil­dren are to­day – that’s where I want all Ja­maican chil­dren to be,” she said.

For de Maidana (who was also a teacher), in­creas­ing ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for chil­dren in ru­ral ar­eas of Paraguay is a ma­jor con­cern.

Her fo­cus is to get ru­ral chil­dren equal ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion. “I was a teacher for 43 years in ru­ral schools so I can talk with pro­pri­ety about what is lack­ing and what is needed. Chil­dren in ru­ral ar­eas should have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties as ev­ery­one else and so­cial eq­uity can only be ob­tained through ed­u­ca­tion.”

In Paraguay, only 2% of teenag- The First Lady of Paraguay Mercedes Lugo De Maidana feels that ed­u­ca­tion is the only way to en­sure so­cial eq­uity. ‘We have to knock on peo­ple’s doors to get them to sup­port us, not just on govern­ment doors. We need the com­mit­ment of the pub­lic to help us get poor chil­dren to uni­ver­sity,’ she says. Lorna Gold­ing, the First Lady of Ja­maica, feels that early devel­op­ment of chil­dren is cru­cial for na­tion­hood. ‘Where my chil­dren are to­day – that’s where I want all Ja­maican chil­dren to be,’ she says. Ernestina Naadu Mills, the First Lady of Ghana, likes to in­spire young girls. ‘I tell them that if they stay in school, they can be any­one they want. I was work­ing as a di­rec­tor (of ed­u­ca­tion) be­fore I be­came first lady, so I tell them they can do any­thing, too,’ she says. ers fin­ish school.

“We have to knock on peo­ple’s doors to get them to sup­port us, not just on govern­ment doors. We need the com­mit­ment of the pub­lic to help us get poor chil­dren to uni­ver­sity,” said de Maidana.

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