- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) - They have seen each other socially, with their husbands in Washington or at the United Nations, but the 15 African first ladies met this time to speak candidly about problems facing women and children on their home continent.

Some called for improved nutrition for children and pregnant mothers, clean water, sanitation infrastructure and inexpensive tools such as insecticide-treated bed nets to help combat malaria. The first ladies at the gathering Tuesday all called for better education for girls.

“Developing partnerships with the education sector will give us significant mileage in preventing maternal and child mortality in the long term,” Kenyan first lady Ida Odinga said.

The World Health Organization estimates 121 of every 1,000 children who survive birth in Kenya will die before age 5. The survivors often lose parents, especially amid epidemics of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Kenya has 2.4 million orphans, Odinga said.

HIV/AIDS remains one of the toughest problem faced by Africa. The continent is home to nearly 70 percent of all adults and 80 percent of all children living with HIV/AIDS, according to the nonprofit US Doctors For Africa. Other infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis have also plagued the continent.

The meeting was co-sponsored by US Doctors For Africa and African Synergy, a charitable group formed by 22 first ladies of Africa.

“First ladies have a unique role. They exist outside the political realm to some degree but have a very powerful role in their communities” as role models to everyday Africans, said Cora Neumann, an organizer for US Doctors For Africa.

“There’s never been a summit focused exclusive to them,” Neumann said.

Some of the first ladies already are health advocates in their countries. First lady Nyama Koroma of Sierra Leone said she’s been working to rebuild hospitals and medical infrastructure in the years since the country’s bloody civil war.

Plans for the event included a fundraiser with a performance by Natalie Cole and a luncheon hosted by California first lady Maria Shriver.

Experts from the World Health Organization, Gates Foundation, U.S. Agency for International Development, World Bank and RAND were among those who participated in discussions alongside the first ladies.

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