African first ladies harness Hollywood star power

An attendant cares for a patient infected with HIV/AIDS in a ward in Uganda’s Infectious Disease Institute in the capital Kampala June 5, 2008. REUTERS/James Akena

BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - The first ladies of 15 African nations will gather in Los Angeles next week to promote their work in improving the health and education of women and girls in a continent ravaged by AIDS, poverty and a scarcity of clean water.

The two-day meeting, billed as the first such summit by the first ladies in the United States, will introduce the influential African women to California business leaders and health policy experts -- as well as Hollywood stars.

“These first ladies already know Washington and New York. They thought that by coming to Los Angeles, some of the inspiration that inspires movie makers could also inspire them in their objectives,” Jean Stephane Biatcha, executive director of African Synergy, one of the organizers, told a Beverly Hills news conference on Thursday.

Movie stars Sharon Stone, Danny Glover and Billy Zane -- all of whom have worked with charities in Africa -- will help to host the April 20-21 event, which includes a celebrity luncheon.

“Lethal Weapon” star Glover, a former United Nations goodwill ambassador, told reporters that African women play a vital role in healthcare and in influencing the education of girls at home.

The meeting will bring together the first ladies of Angola, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Swaziland and 10 other African countries with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah Brown, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife Maria Shriver and others.

The gathering is being organized by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit group US Doctors for Africa (USDFA) and African Synergy Against AIDS and Suffering, a charitable group formed in 2002 by 22 First Ladies from Africa.

USDFA founder Ted Alemayhu said the meeting “will pair these leaders with U.S. experts, key political figures and important organizations to create ongoing partnerships.”

“These are some of Africa’s most important leaders and aiding their efforts is critical to improving health throughout Africa,” Alemayhu said.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte