The first ladies of 15 African nations held a rare gathering Tuesday to talk about dealing with HIV/AIDS, infectious disease and gender inequity on their continent.
Though many of the women have seen each other socially, often on the arms of their husbands in Washington or at the United Nations, it was the first time they gathered in the United States to candidly discuss the problems faced by women and children in Africa.
The meeting was co-sponsored by the nonprofit group US Doctors For Africa, which is based in Los Angeles, and African Synergy, a charitable group formed by 22 first ladies of Africa.
“First ladies have a unique role. They exist outside the political realm to some degree but have a very powerful role in their communities” as role models to everyday Africans, said Cora Neumann, an organizer for US Doctors For Africa.
“There’s never been a summit focused exclusive to them,” Neumann said.
A news conference hosted by Sharon Stone and Danny Glover was held last week to announce the event. Plans also included a fundraiser with a performance by Natalie Cole and a luncheon hosted by California first lady Maria Shriver.
Dressed in an array of fine suits and colorful traditional ensembles, the women spoke passionately in French and various African dialects through translators at the Skirball Cultural Center.
HIV/AIDS remains one of the toughest problem faced by Africa. The continent is home to nearly 70 percent of all adults and 80 percent of all children living with HIV/AIDS, according to US Doctors For Africa. Other infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis have also plagued the continent.
Some of the first ladies called for improved nutrition for children and pregnant mothers, along with clean water, sanitation infrastructure and inexpensive tools such as insecticide-treated bed nets to help combat malaria.
The first ladies all called for better education for girls.
“Developing partnerships with the education sector will give us significant mileage in preventing maternal and child mortality in the long term,” Kenyan first lady Ida Odinga said.
The World Health Organization estimates that 121 of every 1,000 children who survive childbirth in Kenya will die before they reach age five.
The children who do survive are often left without parents, especially when faced with epidemics of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Kenya has 2.4 million orphans, Odinga said.
Neumann said US Doctors For Africa will check in with some of the first ladies throughout the next year to gauge their progress.
Some of the first ladies have already been working as health advocates in their countries.
First lady Nyama Koroma of Sierra Leone said she’s been working to rebuild hospitals and medical infrastructure in the years since the country’s bloody civil war.
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.