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Leading by Example: The First Lady of Tanzania and Her Fight Against Women's Cancers

Article by Natalie Gonnella-Platts February 4, 2015 //   5 minute read

The George W. Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative is a program that supports First Ladies from around the world, with an initial focus in Africa, to effectively use their platforms to promote issues and programs that improve the lives of women and children.  Recent case studies by the Bush Institute look at how the First Ladies Initiative is having an impact, building capacity, and promoting effectiveness for First Ladies’ offices. This blog series spotlights each case study and helps tell the story of a First Lady’s platform and ongoing work.

Today marks World Cancer Day. Though significant gains have been made in the global fight against infectious diseases in developing nations, non-communicable diseases, especially cancers, are on the rise.  According to the World Health Organization, “more than 60 percent of the world’s total new annual cases occur in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.” In facing this new challenge, First Ladies have been a critical force in promoting awareness, prevention, and treatment, especially in relation to women’s cancers.

Her Excellency Salma Kikwete, First Lady of the United Republic of Tanzania, has been an active champion of programs that empower women and inspire them to take proactive steps to care for their personal health. Since her husband took office in 2005, Mrs. Kikwete has leveraged her platform in the fight against cervical and breast cancer, particularly through her support of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon and the partnership’s effort to save women’s lives in Tanzania. 

While cervical cancer is preventable and treatable, it is the number-one cancer killer of women in sub-Saharan Africa and the second most common cause of cancer deaths in women worldwide.  Tanzania has the second-highest rate of cervical cancer in sub-Saharan Africa, and cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related morbidity and mortality for Tanzanian women.  Approximately 11 million women over the age of 15 in Tanzania are at risk of developing cervical cancer.

From fistula awareness to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment to access to education, throughout her nearly 10 years as First Lady of Tanzania, Mrs. Kikwete has actively used her platform to promote critical interventions for women and girls.  With the expansion of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon to Tanzania in 2013, Mrs. Kikwete’s passion and public advocacy on women’s health issues have been an asset to the partnership’s progress.

On March 8, 2014, in celebration of International Women’s Day, the First Lady led a mass screening in Mwanza, marking the coalition’s first official activity in Tanzania.  Local Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon partner organizations, including the Medical Women Association of Tanzania (MEWATA), the national Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the First Lady’s Wanawake Na Maendeleo (WAMA Foundation), and the Tanzanian Youth Alliance (TAYOA), worked together to train health care providers on visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) and cryotherapy, and conducted outreach to the local communities to mobilize women to attend.  Over the course of two days, more than 5,000 women were screened for breast cancer, and 3,287 women for cervical cancer, significantly more women than organizers originally anticipated.   During the event, Mrs. Kikwete delivered a powerful message on the importance of these services, and emphasized the need to address health issues directly to reduce stigma.  After the event, women continued to flow into local health facilities requesting to be screened.

In reflecting on her work in an interview with Bush Institute team members in 2014, Mrs. Kikwete identified that she has been successful in reaching out to Tanzanian women because she makes cervical cancer and other health care issues personal.  She believes that “[if you are] a leader [you] should show the way.”

Mrs. Kikwete’s ability to raise awareness and diminish stigma around cervical and breast cancer is saving lives and strengthening communities.  Her influence stands as a reminder that first ladies around the world have a unique platform to advance important causes, and in working together with sustainable public-private partnerships like Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, can have a significant impact in improving the lives of citizens.

For further information on Mrs. Kikwete and Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon in Tanzania, and to learn more about the work of the Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative, download the Initiative case study, Her Excellency Mrs. Salma Kikwete and Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts is the Program Coordinator for the First Ladies Initiative.