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Rand African First Ladies Initiative fosters leadership among political wives

The Washington Post, 26 September 2011

New York — Being a wife is hard enough. Try also being a first lady.

How do you balance your ambitions with the high-visibility role you are thrust into? How do you act as an advocate, often with a small budget, no experience and little respect? And how do you make sure your husband, now the leader of a nation, knows you’re still the boss?

Such questions provide the unofficial syllabus for the Rand African First Ladies Initiative, a program that hopes to foster leadership among the wives of African heads of state. The program — which is seen as especially valuable on a continent struggling to meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals for maternal mortality and girls’ education — is designed to help participants get the tools they need to become agents of change in their home countries.

On a rainy Friday morning at the Ford Foundation, Rosalynn Carter, former first lady of the United States, chatted with Sia Nyama Koroma, first lady of Sierra Leone, while Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair, bonded with Mathato Mosisili, first lady of Lesotho.

“One journalist in my country wrote that the first lady used to be just an ornament that decorated the presidential entourage,” Koroma said. “But I am determined to change that. I am not intimidated by the blows and punches of men.”

The program took shape after a 2009 African First Ladies Health Summit that Rand co-hosted in Los Angeles. But it has expanded its scope and come to include women from other parts of the world. The nonprofit corporation runs the program in partnership with the State Department’s African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program and the Corporate Council on Africa.

“One day I was the mother of four children and then I woke up and was suddenly the mother of 20 million. My new job as first lady really has no blueprint,” said Sophia Martelly, the first lady of Haiti, who asked to attend though she is not African.

“When I heard about it, I had to come.”

This year, 10 first ladies came to a morning of workshops at which they discussed how to focus their passions and incorporate them into national agendas. They also discussed how to avoid replicating the work of government programs and how to continue their work once their husbands leave office.

Later, over a lunch of mozzarella salad and steak, the first ladies talked about how they often have to invent their jobs and how they are sometimes overwhelmed by requests from constituents and struggle to champion a single cause. (The program also offers training for their staffers, who are attending five days of workshops this week.)

“First ladies can stay above the fray of politics and really cross a lot of boundaries,” said Anita McBride, who opened Friday’s program. McBride, former chief of staff for Laura Bush, is co-director of the Rand Initiative.

The first ladies said they were relieved to have an open forum where they could spend time with one another without official agendas — and without their husbands and children present. First ladies wearing pantsuits mixed with those sporting West African dresses with matching head wraps.

Click here to view the article on the Washington Post