Los Angeles, CA.: Leadership for Health African First Ladies. Credit/Stephen Osman.

First ladies across the globe are rising up to great responsibilities to impact their counties for good. On June 17, former U.S. first lady Laura Bush penned an editorial in The Washington Post about revelations that the government had separated 2,000 children from their parents.

In her Texas home, for an immediate end to the separation of parents and children, she wrote, “I live in a border state, I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”

In the archives of 1989, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, Barbara Bush visited a residence for families and children with AIDS and compassionately picked up and cuddled a baby dying of AIDS at a time of confusion and fear over how the virus spreads. Laura Bush said, “That kind of compassion, exemplifies the American spirit.”

Laura Bush wasn’t alone in condemning the separation of children from their parents. But her voice as a former first lady carried special weight. Three days after The Post published her letter, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to prevent future separations.

Around the world, current and former first ladies play unique roles. They lead by example, rallying support for social issues, and even shaping foreign and domestic policies.

Cora Neumann is the founder of the Global First Ladies Alliance, a Los Angeles-based organization focused on supporting and connecting first ladies around the world, particularly in Africa. “First ladies have untapped potential,” Neumann said. “Their influence tends to unfold behind the scenes, but their power is real, they’re just disregarded” she added.

African first ladies at the Global First Ladies Alliance event. Credit/New times

Tackling Social issues

African first ladies are solving complex social problems involving education, women’s health, maternal mortality, women’s economic empowerment and HIV/AIDS among others.

Monica Geingos, a lawyer and the first lady of Namibia since 2015, has focused on lifting women from poverty through collateral-free loans and training them in entrepreneurship.

Kenyan first lady Margaret Kenyatta has led an initiative to bring mobile health clinics to dozens of counties across the country.

Sia Nyama Koroma, a trained chemist and psychiatric nurse who served as first lady in Sierra Leone from 2007 until just last month, created her country’s Office of the First Lady to support initiatives focused on education, training and women’s empowerment. She worked with local populations and traditional religious leaders in addressing maternal mortality.

 Leading without authority

First ladies are leading without authority. Remember when the former first lady of Tanzania, Salma Kikwete, who, along with her husband, went on live national TV to get tested for HIV? “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.

“And the ability to shape attitudes and behaviors at local levels by going into the communities and meeting with local villagers and local populations can sometimes be more powerful than authority,” she added.

Lifting fellow women

The Global First Ladies Alliance has worked with 45 first ladies from Africa, the U.S., the U.K., Latin America and Asia to share experiences and learn from one another and empower those that work with them. Such exchanges are documented and used to develop case studies and best practices. Initiatives such as a fellowship program for first ladies’ senior staff are fruits thereof.

“You’re only as good as your best adviser,” Neumann said, and that prompted her team to develop a training curriculum for running an effective office.

Their growing influence

“We’re just seeing first ladies continue to take on more and more of a visible and powerful role building networks to better their countries. Behind closed doors, they support, compliment and influence their husbands in leadership policies,” Neumann said.

We see first ladies gaining even more prominence in the future. Their role is becoming more and more influential. As the saying goes, “There’s no strong man without an even stronger woman by his side.”#Rewordit

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