African First Ladies and Women’s Campaign International Rally for Change

At last year’s Women in the World summit, activists from around the world championed bringing Africa’s first ladies together to better serve their people. Marjorie Margolies, the founder and president of Women’s Campaign International, who helped make this idea a reality, offers an inside look at the initiative’s progress.

Callista Mutharika. (Photo: John MacDougall, AFP / Getty Images)

At last year’s Women in the World Summit in New York, the concept of bringing African first ladies together, pooling their experience and authority to better serve the continent’s people, was a “thought-thread” woven across conversations. And sitting in the audience, I felt that my organization, Women’s Campaign International, could help make such a first ladies’ program a reality—thanks, in part, to a remarkable old friend.

In the seven years that our organization worked with Callista Chimombo, born in the village of Nomba, she’d risen from a dynamic woman running for parliamentary office to the first lady of Malawi, claiming a devoted following along the way. With her broad smile and fierce determination to improve the lives of fellow Africans, she seemed uniquely poised to rally other women leaders.

We first met Chimombo in 2003, when she, along with 57 other women from across Malawi, traveled to Lilongwe to participate in WCI’s parliamentary workshops. Through these training sessions, our staff equipped these budding leaders with tools needed to run successful political campaigns—from courses in public speaking and media messaging to resource mobilization and grassroots organizing. And sure enough, the following year, more than two dozen of our trainees won their elections, doubling the number of women serving in Malawi’s parliament.

Chimombo proved herself an adept politician, as we knew she would. The president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, appointed her Minister of Tourism and Culture in 2004, and she served in this office until 2009. The following year, the president asked Chimombo to take on a new position: First Lady. The couple held a public engagement ceremony on Valentine’s Day, and they married that May.

Later in 2010, President wa Mutharika was elected chairperson of the African Union, a 53-country body, and Her Excellency Madame wa Mutharika ascended to an even higher profile post. She soon began tirelessly championing for causes dear to her, including the fight against malaria and the creation of the Callista Mutharika Safe Motherhood Foundation.

Over the years, stationed in our Philadelphia headquarters, we devoted many hours to envisioning an African first ladies’ initiative. And now, here we were, with one of our trainees and loyal friends as first lady. Combined with the support of Women in the World attendees, it seemed an opportune moment for WCI to move forward. And so, with the support of her excellency, we dared to take our ideas out of the office and begin dreaming aloud about a program that would unite all of the first ladies in Africa and their strategic programs to create change.

Supported by generous contributions from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, Tina Brown, The Rockefeller Foundation and Jim Greenbaum of The Greenbaum Foundation, we unveiled The African First Ladies Strategic Initiative in New York City in September 2010 to coincide with the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting and the United Nations Summit. (Disclosure: The Diller-von Furstenberg Foundation is directed by Barry Diller, a director and co-owner of The Newsweek Daily Beast Company, and his family; Tina Brown is editor in chief of Newsweek/The Daily Beast.)

Through Callista wa Mutharika’s story we see in action that investing in one woman can bring about amazing opportunities for growth and change.

Three months later, in January 2011, our team traveled to Addis Ababa to attend the African Union Summit, a week-long meeting of African heads of state. There, we held bilateral discussions with the offices of the first ladies and addressed the Organization of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS, the premiere association bringing together these distinguished leaders. The FLSI will contribute to these first ladies’ existing work by providing their offices with development and technical support, so that they can fully take advantage of their unique platform.

Because that is, after all, what the Initiative is meant to be—a means through which powerful women who are already doing tremendous work can join forces in ways that align their interests, needs, and infrastructure. Going forward, WCI has vowed to assist these women with their goals and offer continued skills training, so the changes that the first ladies envision can be realized. Changes like providing clean drinking water and ventilated cooking stoves to their citizens, promoting HIV/AIDS awareness, sponsoring sustainable agricultural projects, improving maternal and child health care, distributing hearing aids to those in need (a campaign in which the Starkey organization is already involved), and much more.

We believe in Africa’s first ladies. We believe that they can be humanitarian leaders, both symbolically and pragmatically. And WCI is honored to have received invitations to work with many first ladies and their offices in their home countries over the next few months. During these visits, we will survey the women’s needs, provide individualized consulting and cultivate our partnerships.

Through Callista wa Mutharika’s story we see in action the core belief of WCI: that investing in one woman can bring about amazing opportunities for growth and change. At our organization, we invest in women, many of whom travel by bus for three days to arrive at a workshop, including some who have the capacity to pave the road along that journey. It’s our hope that, somewhere along this road, all women will meet and inspire one another, bridge differences, celebrate commonalities, and continue their walk together.

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Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky is the president and co-founder of Women’s Campaign International. As a teacher, trainer, member of Congress, journalist, and author, she has served as a mentor to countless young women. In addition to her work with WCI, she is currently a senior lecturer at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation at Princeton University.