Sierra Leone’s First Lady, Mrs. Sia Nyama Koroma, responded to the invitation of her Ghanaian counterpart, Dr. Nana Dramani Mahawa, who is the current President of the Organisation of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA), by attending the 7th Africa Conference on Sexual and Health Rights held in the Ghanaian capital of Accra from 9-10 February.
Mrs. Koroma also actively participated in the launch of OAFLA’s ‘All-In-Campaign Against Adolescent HIV/AIDS’ on 11th February. Eight First Ladies from Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Mali and Sierra Leone were in attendance, while First Ladies from Burkina Faso, Gambia, Madagascar, Rwanda and Swaziland sent representatives. The First Lady of Ghana used the occasion to also launch Ghana’s Initiative on Ending Child Marriage by 2020 on 10th February.
The opening ceremony of the impressive four-day event was graced by Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, who declared the conference open. His statement was preceded by an opening address that was delivered by her wife, the First Lady of Ghana, Dr. Nana Lordina Dramani Mahama, who emphasised the need for healthy, educated and skilled adolescents and youth, especially girls, so that African countries could reap the demographic dividend; a new development concept that has been introduced by UNFPA.
She called on African countries to invest in the health of young adolescents and to provide an environment that is open and free for discussion, as well as to avail adolescents with access to sexual and reproductive services and accurate information. She ended her remarks by stating that ignoring the youth will leave them open to vices such as lawlessness and extremism.
Other speakers included Dr. Sidiki Kalokoh, Commissioner for Social Affairs at the African Union; Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA; and a representative of the Executive Director of UNAIDS.
All the speakers commended the African First Ladies for their hard work in the health sector in particular, both in their home countries and within OAFLA. In one refrain, all the speakers called for an expanded role for OAFLA beyond HIV/AIDS. This call was also echoed by H.E. President John Mahama, who stated that the African Union must give this expanded role for African First Ladies a serious thought because they have played pivotal roles in development under the auspices of OAFLA, and in their home countries that have impacted the lives of many segments of the population.
First Lady Sia Nyama Koroma delivered a statement on sexual and reproductive health in Sierra Leone with a focus on adolescent HIV/AIDS. She outlined the gender dimensions of the Ebola Virus Disease and its disproportionate impact on women and young girls, which was directly related to their unequal access to health care services.
Mrs. Koroma maintained that adolescents’ needs have to be addressed because they make up a significant percentage of the global population, quoting several sources and reports that assert the following: “Young people aged 10-24 years make up 1.8 billion of the world’s population, 9 out of 10 of them live in less developing countries which include most sub-Saharan countries; and 1.2 billion of the world’s population are adolescents ranging from ages 10-19 years, making them 18% of our global population”.
The First Lady stated that out of Sierra Leone’s six million population, 30% are young people between the ages of 15 and 35. She also asserted that “our national governments have a huge responsibility towards this growing young population because they represent an untapped resource waiting to be harnessed, from which our countries can reap a huge dividend if they are harnessed properly”, based on findings from UNFPA.
The First Lady then proceeded to outline the status of HIV/AIDS in Sierra Leone and referred to the correlation between high HIV prevalence and early sexual activity. She presented statistics from Sierra Leone’s National AIDS Secretariat confirming a drop in condom use by adolescent girls, leaving them more vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmissible infections. She alluded to the rise in teenage pregnancy during the 14-month Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, which confirms the lack of condom use by adolescents; the inability to access family planning services during the outbreak could also have been a contributing factor in this case.
Mrs. Koroma mentioned the launching of 4,000 Duo HIV/Syphilis Rapid test kits that had been donated to Sierra Leone by Alere, a partner to OAFLA. She announced that Alere has donated an additional 10,000 Duo HIV/Syphilis Rapid test kits to Sierra Leone following their meeting at the recent African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia earlier in February this year. She stated that these rapid test kits will contribute towards saving lives of mothers and children as well as the adolescent population in particular.
She then catalogued all her activities and initiatives relating to HIV/AIDs in Sierra Leone since her inception as First Lady in 2007, and many of these activities included advocacy work in collaboration with the National AIDS Secretariat and donor partners on the prevention of HIV/AIDs, against the stigmatisation of persons living with HIV/AIDs, and the donation of much needed supplies to HIV/AIDs mothers.
She voiced her support to the Network of HIV Positives in Sierra Leone and the Voice of Women, a group of HIV positive women. She also laid out her work on early marriage and teenage pregnancy, all of which is geared towards ensuring that the girl child and adolescent girls in particular complete their primary and secondary education, thereby bridging the gender inequality gap in access to education.
In her concluding words, the First Lady called on her colleague African First Ladies and members of OAFLA to live up to their commitment to the international community by working closely with these institutions to achieve zero HIV transmission by 2030. She stated that “this is the time to act” andimplored the African First Ladies to work steadfastly within OAFLA and in their respective home countries to ensure that they advocate for stronger national policies and strategies that will place adolescent sexual and reproductive health and HIV in the adolescent segment of the population, firmly on national political agendas.
She quoted UNAIDS’s aim to “spur concrete action and mobilise resources” that will lead their countries to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS related deaths.
Following the opening of the conference, a State Banquet was held on 10th February at which event the African First Ladies were guests of honour. It was during this dinner that the Government of Ghana launched the ‘Ending Child Marriage Initiative’. The African First Ladies also opened the OAFLA Ghana exhibition, which depicted the achievements of OAFLA Member States in their countries under the leadership of the First Ladies.
The highpoint of the side events was the visit to the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and Museum. Sierra Leone’s First Lady was asked to lay a wreath on behalf of her colleagues and was joined by the First Ladies of Kenya and Mali, who also laid wreaths. Madam Sia Nyama Koroma, the First Lady of Kenya Mrs. Margaret Kenyatta, and the First Lady of Ghana joined their host and colleagues at the closing ceremony of the conference on 12th February.
Mrs. Koroma took time off to visit the Dialysis Centre at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, which is affiliated with the University of Ghana. The aim of the visit was to fully understand the challenges in running a Dialysis Centre.
The First Lady’s delegation included Madam Finda Koroma, Legal Counsel and Technical Adviser, Mrs. Florence Sesay, Mr. Manfred Peters, Ms. Rugiatu Bangura, and security personnel. Ms. Fiona Kai-Kai, UNFPA was also part of the delegation.