African First Ladies bridge gender gap First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa is greeted by her United States counterpart Dr Jill Biden during the “We are Equal Campaign” on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday

Tendai Rupapa in NEW YORK, US

FIRST Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa yesterday joined her counterparts in the Organisation of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD) in launching the, “We are Equal Campaign”, on the side-lines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

The development is expected to close the gender gap in Africa and ensure males and females have equal access to education, healthcare and economic opportunities.

Dr Mnangagwa said Zimbabwe fully subscribed to gender equality and extended an invite to all First Ladies to attend the International Conference on Aids and STIs in Africa (ICASA) slated for Victoria Falls.

It is at ICASA, the First Lady said, where Zimbabwe will launch its campaign, “We are Equal: Closing the gender gap in Africa on December 2.

US First Lady Dr Jill Biden, also attended the launch at the invitation of the First Ladies, where they interacted and shared notes on programmes they are undertaking in their respective countries.

The campaign, according to OAFLAD, focuses on key action areas including women’s health, access to reproductive healthcare, gender-based violence, education and economic empowerment.

The goal, they said, is to inject new urgency into the movement of gender equality.

First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa with her counterparts from Kenya, Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, DRC, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Nigeria pose during the “We are Equal Campaign” on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday

Dr Mnangagwa said: “We fully endorse the ‘We are Equal’ message which talks to the issue of gender equity and equality. We firmly believe that boys and girls, women and men are equal and we should close the gap in terms of education, economic empowerment, health and gender-based violence.

“I am also driving the girls to stay in school campaign by providing and giving sewing machines and all accessories for them to make their own reusable sanitary pads thus promoting good menstrual hygiene. Also this stops girls from missing school during their menstrual period.

“I also have the First Lady’s girls training camp where I take them out for a week or so just to see how they behave and teach them valuable life lessons. I also engage the boys to say when you see that girl, who are you seeing, are you respecting your sisters? All this is educative.

“I also engage men seeking to end activities that hurt women,” she said to applause.

Dr Mnangagwa spoke about her male engagement initiatives as she seeks to build strong families and nip domestic violence in the bud.

“There is a conference that I lead on male engagement alongside traditional chiefs and their spouses having first sought permission from them to engage and address them.

“As a country we are going to be launching the campaign on the 2nd of December 2023 on the side-lines of the International Conference on Aids and STIs in Africa (ICASA) where we will have a high-level meeting of First Ladies for Africa and development.

“It is during that high-level meeting that Zimbabwe will launch the ‘We are Equal Campaign’. We are excited to launch the campaign because we strongly believe that boys and girls should have equal access to education, health, economic empowerment and free from gender-based violence.

“I am saying to the First Ladies, I once again invite you, my sisters to come to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe for the ICASA training programme,” Dr Mnangagwa said.

First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa interacts with Namibian First Lady Mrs Monica Geingos and Malawian First Lady Mrs Monica Chakwera during the “We are Equal Campaign” on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday

Dr Biden, added her weight to the launch saying she was charmed by the activities of OAFLAD and its efforts to improve the welfare of the people.

She also hammered on the need to empower women to create more stable and peaceful communities.

“You really touched my heart and I really appreciate you all my sisters and your commitment. It’s always so wonderful to see you and it’s one of those things that I feel, as I feel with all the sisters of Africa, that we really come together and it’s like we have never been apart and I have that feeling for everyone here,” she said.

“This year we went to Columbia University and we talked about our platforms and how we can share on issues that we care about and last year at the US-Africa leaders’ summit, I was so moved to hear about the efforts to fight cancer in your countries and I am so grateful to join you once again so that we can turn all our lights towards gender equality. Women nurse and nurture, teach and build, lift and drift our world forward each and every day. Women have been silent and when women are left behind and pushed out, it hurts us all. When women get the opportunity to get things that they deserve, there is no limit to what we can do. When women have the ability to participate fully in society, we create more stable and more peaceful lives and places to live. Women are the heart of a strong democracy and that’s why the ‘we are equal campaign’ is so important,” she said.

First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa and her African counterparts are joined by United States First Lady Dr Jill Biden for a group photo during the “We are Equal Campaign” on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday. — Pictures: John Manzongo

OAFLAD president, the Namibian First Lady Monica Geingos, spoke glowingly about the campaign and encouraged members to embrace it.

“We are 20 years old now. Last year this time we had a strategy session and I want to welcome you to this high-level event which is ‘We are equal event’ which seeks to spotlight the work we need to do to close the gaps in achieving gender equality. The idea that we are equal is very simple. Every human being has intrinsic value. It’s an idea that is entrenched in many of our constitutional and legal frameworks. They envisage how things ought to be. They even tell us that the world we live in is different from the world we ought to live in. The evidence tells us that until we close the gaps in gender equality, we are not equal. Gender equality is the heartbeat of human rights, a core understanding that from the moment of our birth, every woman, every man possesses the same inherent dignity, the same rights and when given equal opportunity the same potential to contribute to,” she said.

The OAFLAD executive secretary said the campaign came at a critical moment, halfway into the sustainable development goal and Africa Union strategy for gender equity and women empowerment timelines.

“Looking ahead, we continue these efforts to the upcoming events in early 2024 and other annual gatherings of our organisation. This side event of the annual general assembly provides a unique opportunity for OAFLAD to connect with stakeholders, promote organization strategic areas and advance the gender equity agenda for Africa. Throughout our discussion today we hope to share the work of member states, connect with stakeholders and garner additional advocacy support from partners in the implementation and reach of the ‘We are Equal Campaign’. We would like to thank all partners who have committed to journey with the First Ladies in the implementation and reach of the ‘We are Equal campaign’,” she said.

Botswana First Lady Mrs Jane Neo Masisi also highlighted the programmes she was undertaking in her country.

“It is my privilege and honour to join my sisters here and dear mothers of the African continent. I decided to take a peek at the theme of the 78th session of the UN general assembly. “Rebuilding trust and reigniting global security”. I was thrilled to see the words rebuilding and reigniting. I think that’s what we are doing primarily within this campaign. Ladies and gentlemen the Covid-19 pandemic set us back in terms of gender equality, eliminating gains that we had made over time towards achieving gender equality. It really put a dent on the achievement of Goal 5 hence, these are no ordinary times and they call for no ordinary interventions,” she said.

Malawian First Lady Monica Chakwera said she was enthusiastic about the campaign.

“I incorporate our steadfast mission to bridge the gender gap in education, health and economic empowerment within the borders of Malawi. Let me qualify the significance of closing this gap. It is not merely a goal but a qualitative strategy that demands one’s unwavering dedication now more than ever in our country Malawi,” she said.

Mrs Fatima Maada Bio, the First Lady of Sierra Leone said she was committed to championing the rights of women and girls in her country.

“I would like to share perspectives on the topic of closing the gender gap in Africa. Education is the way forward yesterday, education is the way forward today and education is the way forward tomorrow. If we want this thing we are fighting for, gender-based violence for equality in our society, we should be able to sit at the table and we should be able to contribute meaningfully for them to take us seriously,” she said.

Nigerian First Lady, Sen Oluremi Tinubu, who was attending the meeting for the first time, said as Nigeria they were fully behind the campaign.

UNAIDS executive director Ms Winnie Byanyima said gender equality was close to her heart and paid tribute to African First Ladies for their initiative.

“I am going to speak on a topic so dear to my heart and that is gender equality. I must begin by paying tribute to the African First Ladies. We at UNAIDS are proud and humbled that we have been part of your journey and in this journey you have made a difference for people in Africa, for people living with HIV. You and the women before you and other First Ladies, you have been a united voice for women and children living with HIV. You spoke up and touched lives, you influenced policies, you influenced laws, you did so much and you are part of the progress that has been achieved on the continent of Africa on fighting HIV/AIDS, I salute you. Under the leadership of committed gender development champions like yourselves, so much has been won for women and girls on the continent in the last 20 years. I am going to talk about girls’ education because that is a gap we have been fighting to close for 50 years or so. When I was growing up in my village in Uganda at the age of 12, I went to secondary school and at that time secondary schools were few and far between so every girl or boy who made it after primary school went to a boarding secondary school, a government-owned secondary school where you stayed in the school. Whenever we would come back home for holidays, studying at the age of 12, my grandmother would sit me down and say ‘so really tell me, give me a good reason why we shouldn’t marry you off and get 12 cows?’ I said I wanted to read. I wanted to do this and she would say “you want to read and you want to get to where, up to where?”

“She would say do you work to become a chief because the biggest job in her area was that of a chief. There were no women who were chiefs, there were no women in public life, not in the parliament therefore, this campaign is very important,” he said.

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