Actions speak louder than appearance for first ladies

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Each time the mostly male leaders of the world meet, interest as well as scrutiny are cast on their spouses. While first ladies were mostly absent from gatherings this year, their roles are clearer than ever.

Not private citizens or elected leaders, first ladies have a special platform to bring change. As influencers with considerable social capital, their use of their podiums can build bridges between government institutions and civil society, many times on highly controversial issues. Unfortunately, at side gatherings for international events, our society often focuses on the outer appearance of first ladies instead of their substance.

But by leveraging their own expertise along with the visibility of their roles across eras and environments, many first ladies continue to support much better visions with our world. This includes confronting entrenched issues like global inequity, higher poverty, and cyclical violence.

Kim Simplis Barrow of Belize has worked with local communities, regional partners, and international stakeholders, to engage men and boys to stop violence based on gender. This includes the development of a coalition of male advocates to challenge harmful social norms, toxic masculinity, and gender bias across all levels of society within the country.

Maria Juliana Ruiz of Colombia has engaged to mobilize communities and the private sector in the delivery of groceries and nutrition support to the most vulnerable populations. For most countries, the coronavirus has not only presented new and immediate health challenges, it has also fortified all the existing barriers that hold communities back. Moreover, the ripple effects are even more acute with young women and girls.

Violence based on gender has increased in every corner of the world. Severe levels of food insecurity and hunger could double, impacting millions of people, with women and children even more affected. The disruptions to health services have upended access to resources like youth programs, mental health support, and maternal and infant care. Further, there are seven million unintended pregnancies in the world connected to the crisis estimated by the United Nations.

Neo Masisi of Botswana has partnered with the United Nations and young people affected by human immunodeficiency virus to create the national video series in response to the coronavirus. Such an awareness campaign aims to provide better information and advice to young people to support physical and mental health with this time of uncertainty.

Monica Geingos of Namibia has built on the work of an initiative to run a platform for young people to discuss their challenges and access health services. Using the power of data and evaluation, Geingos and her team are working to institutionalize the project, including the launch of a “one stop center for excellence.” She also continues to utilize own platform to confront sexual assault and the broader challenges for cyclical violence, often connecting directly with several impacted families.

Fashion is often used as the defining feature of first ladies instead of their conduct. That is ironic in this global movement to ensure gender equality around the world, which is an issue championed by numerous first ladies. Fashion is still an important representation of culture and even diplomacy, notably for the context of soft power. But the coronavirus has altered our world, demanding increased responsibility and further empathy to tackle challenges, and first ladies are responding to such needs.

These are some instances of action by first ladies. From Latin America to Africa, first ladies are effectively making use of their own bully pulpits to elevate innovative solutions focused on more access, collaboration, and communication. It is time we altered our superficial typecasting for their roles. Their actions speak louder than their appearances.

Natalie Gonnella Platts serves as the director of the Women Initiative and an author of “A Role Without a Rulebook” with the George Bush Institute.

Tags Culture Democracy Economics Feminism Government International Women

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