in the position to help
First ladies focus on health care and education for women and children.
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.