African First Ladies and the Fight Against Women’s Cancers: Iron Sharpening Iron

Posted by On October 25, 2012
On September 26, 2012 ten current and former African First Ladies joined Former First Lady Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, wife of the former U.K. Prime Minister, at the 2012 RAND African First Ladies Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City. The forum supported the First Ladies on their collective quest to become even more effective leaders for their nations and continent. Throughout the meeting, the First Ladies discussed shared goals, common challenges and best strategies for creating partnerships and aligning visions with initiatives in-country. The day’s conversations were designed to help the First Ladies become champions of change in their home countries on issues such as women’s health, girls’ education and women’s economic empowerment. I was invited to facilitate conversations around women’s health, specifically breast and cervical cancer control and the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon initiative. Not surprisingly, given the increased burden of cancers on women in Africa, I heard from several first ladies on their desire to lead the fight against women’s cancers in their countries. One particular story stood out. Following the Stop Cervical Cancer in Africa Conference in Lusaka, Zambia in July 2012, H.E. Mrs. Penehupifo Pohamba, first lady of Namibia and chair of the Organization of African First Ladies Against AIDS, sought out advice on cervical cancer control from H.E. Dr. Christine Kaseba, first lady of Zambia. Mrs. Pohamba has advocated for a variety of public health campaigns in Namibia, and knows all too well the challenges tied to mounting a successful national effort around women’s health. Dr. Kaseba has been an influential advocate for Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon and women’s cancer control in Zambia and has helped lead Zambia to the forefront in cervical and breast cancer control on the continent. Mrs. Pohamba indicated that to deal effectively with the frightening burden of cervical cancer, Namibia urgently needs the one-visit approach currently promoted in Zambia and asked for guidance from Dr. Kaseba and whether Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon could assist. It was inspiring to listen to Dr. Kaseba share with Mrs. Pohamba her experience of successfully driving forward cancer control efforts in Zambia. On a similar note, appeals were made to PRRR for immediate support by H.E. Mrs. Chantal Boni Yayi of Benin, the Tanzanian Ambassador to the United States, and the representatives of the first ladies of Senegal and Mozambique. The other first ladies participating in the RAND conference included H.Es. Salma Kikwete of Tanzania, Traore Mintou Doucoure of Mali, Antoinette Sassou N’Guesso of the Republic of Congo, Hadidja Ikililou of Comoros,  Jeannette Kagame of Rwanda, and Chantal Campaoré of Burkina Faso; as well as the former first lady of Malawi, Callista Mutharika, and the wife of the Vice President of Nigeria, Hajiya Amina Namadi Sambo. Mrs. Bush lauded the First Ladies’ efforts, concluding that “more children in your countries are in school, families are learning to lead healthier lives, and communities are benefiting with more citizens in the workforce.” Mrs. Bush said, “Because you care, you know there’s much more work to be done.” Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon looks forward to working with the First Ladies as they reach their potential as leaders and mothers of their nations, and take specific steps alongside development partners to improve the lives of their constituents. This post was written by Doyin Oluwole, MD, FRCP, the founding Executive Director of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, based at the George W. Bush Institute.