First Ladies in Africa Creating Change for Women

07 July, 2018

Last month, The Washington Post published an opinion piece about reports that the United States government had separated 2,000 children from their parents.

The writer was Laura Bush, wife of former U.S. President George W. Bush. They live in Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico.

"I live in a border state," she wrote. "I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel...It breaks my heart."

In her letter, Laura Bush called for an immediate end to the separation of children and parents.

Three days after the Post published her letter, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to prevent future separations.

Bush was not alone in condemning the separation of children from their parents. But her voice as a former first lady was influential.

Former first lady Laura Bush speaks at a forum sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute in New York, Oct. 19, 2017.
Former first lady Laura Bush speaks at a forum sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute in New York, Oct. 19, 2017.

Leading by example

Around the world, many current and former first ladies are able to influence events. These women often do not have legal power, but they lead by example. They can build support for social issues, and even shape local and foreign policies.

Cora Neumann is the creator of the Global First Ladies Alliance, a U.S-based group that supports and connects first ladies around the world.

First ladies have unused potential, Neumann said. Their influence is often hidden from sight, but their power is real.

"They're in this position of power, potentially, and influence," Neumann told VOA. "But they're just disregarded. And there was a real double standard there that caught me that I think it applies to women specifically."

Social issues

African first ladies often are involved with social problems involving education, women's health, economic empowerment and efforts against HIV/AIDS.

Monica Geingos, a lawyer, has been the first lady of Namibia since 2015. She has been working to help woman escape poverty through loans and training to become business leaders.

Kenyan first lady Margaret Kenyatta has led a movement to set up health centers in many parts of her country.

Sia Nyama Koroma served as the first lady of Sierra Leone from 2007 until just last month. A trained chemist and mental health specialist, she established the country's Office of the First Lady. Koroma created her office to support efforts aimed at improving education, training and women's empowerment.

Her efforts have been effective in dealing with the problem of mothers dying during childbirth, Neumann said. She praised Koroma for working with local populations and traditional religious leaders.

Leading without authority

First ladies often enact change not because of a legal order, but by using their position to influence action. This is something Neumann called "leading without authority."

"What we've seen in some of the countries in Africa, and you see here (in the U.S.) in ways as well, is that the first ladies are considered, and sometimes called, the mother of their country," Neumann said.

She added that the ability to shape behaviors at a local level, by meeting with villagers, can sometimes be more powerful than authority.

Neumann gave an example of Salma Kikwete, a former first lady of Tanzania. She and her husband went on live national TV to get tested for HIV, the virus responsible for the disease AIDS.

Lifting women

Empowering first ladies and those who work with them raises the standing of all women, Neumann said.

The Global First Ladies Alliance has worked with 45 current and former first ladies. Along with Africa, the group has organized meetings with women from the U.S., Britain, Latin America and Asia. At these events, the former first ladies can share experiences and learn from one another.

The alliance documents the exchanges and develops case studies. That has led to programs such as a fellowship program for top aides to first ladies.

"You're only as good as your best adviser," Neumann said, and that pushed her team to develop training for operating an effective office.

Growing influence

Over time, first ladies have gained respect and formed powerful contacts.

"We're just seeing first ladies continue to take on more and more of a visible and powerful role," Neumann said.

In the future, Neumann sees first ladies gaining even more influence.

"The more powerful they become, and the more visible they become — like we just saw in the United States — this speaking out and applying direct pressure is going to continue to become more important," she said.

I'm Phil Dierking.

Salem Solomon wrote this story for VOANews Phil Dierking adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

How do you think about this article? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

authority - n. the power to give orders or make decisions

disregard - v. to ignore (something) or treat (something) as unimportant

double standard - n. a situation in which two people, groups, etc., are treated very differently from each other in a way that is unfair to one of them

first lady - n. the wife of the U.S. president

potential - n. a chance or possibility that something will happen or exist in the future

role - n. the character played by an actor

tolerance - n. willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own

visible - adj. able to be seen