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Humanitarian Champion
Former Ethiopian first lady dedicates herself to improve the well-being of women and children
By Li Xiaoyu  ·2018-06-26

Tesfaye (center) launches the Smiling Children Project for a primary school in Addis Ababa on May 26, 2015

Roman Tesfaye, wife of former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, is a fervent advocate of women's economic empowerment. The former Ethiopian first lady sees this issue as the key to poverty eradication and social transformation.

"What's good for women is good for the economy," she said. To illustrate that action speaks louder than words, Tesfaye launched a pilot project called "Connecting 1,500 Women and Young Girls to the Export Market" in February 2014. As part of this training project, the beneficiaries, unemployed women as well as female entrepreneurs who want to expand their businesses are able to acquire technical and entrepreneurial skills for the artisanal production of export-bound products, such as leather fashion accessories. Thanks to these new economic opportunities, they now have access to local and international markets, allowing them to improve their living conditions.

School feeding program

Mother of three daughters, Tesfaye, who was the first lady between September 2012 and February 2018, pays special attention to the education and nutrition of children. Having grown up in the countryside, she discovered at an early age that education is an effective way to break the cycle of poverty. After reading a report of the Addis Ababa Education Bureau in 2014 showing that thousands of children were about to drop out of school because of malnutrition, Tesfaye sprang into action immediately.

In 2015, together with the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), she initiated a school feeding program called Smiling Children Project covering 42 public primary schools in Addis Ababa. Today, the project has been providing free breakfast and lunch to 22,000 students in the capital.

According to studies, the school attendance rate for children taking part in this program rose to almost 99 percent. Their health status has improved, and their school performance is on the rise.

Moreover, also within the framework of this project, 1,200 mothers who had no stable source of income were recruited to be in charge of the supply, preparation and distribution of food to students. In this way, the project benefits both women and children. Tesfaye continues to be actively involved in efforts to raise funds so that more children can benefit from the initiative.

Tireless warrior

Tesfaye is also involved in other humanitarian work. Elected as head of the Organization of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS in 2017, she used her status to raise public awareness of the fight against this epidemic. The sustained efforts of Tesfaye and other African first ladies contributed to increased access of pregnant women living with HIV/AIDS and their children to HIV prevention and treatment services in Africa. The responsiveness of local institutions toward the pandemic has also been improved.

Access to cancer treatment and care services is another area of concern for energetic Tesfaye. She wants to make treatment and care services accessible and affordable to all Ethiopians living with cancer. She initiated in 2016 a national strategy for cancer prevention and control which covers the period of 2016-20, and in the process, five specialized university hospitals are now being built in different parts of the country. Diagnostic and treatment services for cervical cancer have also been expanded across the country.

Tesfaye has many admirers for the tireless work she does to help those less fortunate than herself. One of these admirers is Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who said, "Roman Tesfaye is a true warrior for women and children in Africa."

Roman Tesfaye

While she is officially no longer the first lady of Ethiopia, Tesfaye's commitment to improve the lives of women, children and vulnerable groups remains unchanged. In an exclusive interview with ChinAfrica, Tesfaye talks about her future projects and comments on her collaboration with her Chinese partner.

ChinAfrica: Why did you choose to become involved in charity causes related to women and children?

Roman Tesfaye: Being a first lady is a major responsibility. This is a unique position that should be leveraged for the good of the people. I chose to use [the prominence of] this title to act for the well-being of women and children. Whether it is the education of our young children or the empowerment of women, it is the future development of our nation that is at stake. I prioritized five topics [women's economic empowerment, improving education quality through school feeding, cancer prevention and control, the fight against HIV/AIDS and the promotion of good nutritional practices], because they exert a direct influence on women, children and marginalized groups, and worked to improve their situation through various initiatives.

How important is your cooperation with the CFPA?

The CFPA is a strong partner of both the Smiling Children Project and the Women's Economic Empowerment Initiative that I advocate for. It understands the critical importance of the projects we are implementing and is ready to respond quickly to our requests. It has consistently supported us from the early stage of the projects. There is another reason why I am very grateful for its support. I know that many people believe that school feeding promotes dependency among children and families. I think that this is very far away from the truth. Indeed, breaking the cycle of poverty through economic growth is the only lasting solution to the problem of malnutrition. However, it takes time to address the consequences of extreme poverty that has lasted for centuries. It is not a question of promoting dependency, but of carrying out a strategic and humanitarian intervention. In this regard, I thank the Chinese people who supported us through the CFPA, and I hope that this generous support will continue.

Could you tell us about your future projects, and how do you plan to further cooperate with China?

I wish to continue serving the Ethiopian people. I will fight all my life to improve the living conditions of women and children. The school feeding program, for example, is not something you can give up halfway: You can't feed a child one day and tell him there is no food the next day. That would be counterproductive. Therefore, we must continue to help until a sustainable solution is in place. With my husband, former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, we are working to create an independent and non-political foundation that will focus on issues related to the well-being of women and children. We plan to continue supporting the Smiling Children Project. I hope my engagement with the people and government of China will continue by partnering on the projects the upcoming foundation will develop and implement.

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