NEW YORK—With their husbands in meetings at the U.N. General Assembly, the first ladies of 13 African nations were across First Avenue Wednesday conducting their own summit. The women were working on ways to use their high-profile positions to create effective changes in their home nations.
The first ladies are a part of the RAND African First Ladies Initiative (AFLI), a group that has been partnering with the spouses of presidents and prime ministers for four years to provide them the resources to be effective champions of change.
“We believe first ladies are the agents of change,” said Charles Ries, vice president, international at the RAND Corporation. “The intent of it all was not to ask first ladies to support any particular issue, but to offer support for first ladies to whatever issue they choose to make their own.”
The role of the first lady is not defined by the U.S. Constitution, and around the globe it often comes without regulations or rules. It is a job no woman applies for but is instead required to take. The job carries with it a powerful voice that often reaches beyond political lines.
“They have total access to everybody. Not only can they talk to their husbands, but they can pick up the phone and no one is going to turn down that call,” said Gery Ryan, director of RAND AFLI.
The audience is built in, but without a guidebook to encompass their undefined jobs, many first ladies are unable to harness that audience effectively.
In private meetings held Wednesday at the Ford Foundation in Midtown, both current and former first ladies, including Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, were given the opportunity to meet with the African first ladies. The candid conversations came without the formalities of state meetings or the agendas of galas and events. They shared ideas to develop effective partnerships and build lasting legacies.
—“When I say study your predecessors, I don’t mean just people who were married to former presidents, but also all the women in your lives. In fact, you might look at your mother-in-law.”
—“Build on your own strengths. Think about the ways you can be most effective about what you already know, about what your interests and expertise already is.”
—“Partner with great existing programs.”
—“Be prepared for events you don’t expect.”
—“Enjoy the friendships and experiences you have along the way.”
“Today’s discussions were indeed very useful. I am convinced that as role models, change makers, and leaders in our respective countries, we are increasingly realizing our potential and must now take specific steps alongside our development partners to improve our existing projects and programs to positively change the lives of our people,” said Penehupifo Pohamba, first lady of Namibia, in a statement.
The meetings will be followed by a five–day seminar for the senior staff to each of the first ladies, who will learn strategic planning for managing the office of the first lady. The sessions will go over ways to define each first lady’s individual role, how to develop short- and long-term strategies, and how to hone in and build on initiatives they create.
Former U.S. first lady Laura Bush gave the keynote speech during the luncheon, dispensing advice she learned from her eight years as first lady of the United States. “Each of you here are using your interests and passions to shape your work as first lady, whether it is education and health care, poverty and social justice. You have taken your unique opportunity to lead,” Bush said.
Bush concluded, telling the first ladies, “Because of our husband’s jobs, we have a unique job. So make the most of it. We have the chance to make great friends with people from around the world. It may not be the life you expected, but the twists and turns along the way give it great meaning, richness, and value.”
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.