Action for Women and Girls Must Happen Year Round

This interview follows an article by First Lady Madame Sylvia Bongo on International Women's Day about the issues and opportunities facing her home country of Gabon. Here she outlines how the work of her Foundation is looking to address them.

Can you provide an overview of the Foundation? What is its mission and focus?
The Foundation is dedicated to supporting families, focusing especially on women and youth. Our activities are largely in education, healthcare and women's empowerment, guided by our core principles of professionalism, solidarity, and government cooperation.

We act as both supporting partners to organizations who are already established, and conduct projects ourselves. We aim to achieve the maximum impact, whilst also trying to innovate and educate those we support so the projects are sustainable.

And you founded a school as well - the Ecole Ruben Vert?
I have always been passionate about education. It is the basis of all sustainable development and the key to promoting equal opportunity and meritocracy. For a long time, I dreamed of an innovative educational project intended to be a model for Africa. The dream became reality through the Ecole Ruban Vert, allowing children in my country to access a quality bilingual education, pegged to international standards (Ecole Ruban Vert offers the IB program and Diploma).

We place particular emphasis not only on mastering a curriculum of languages, science and technology, but also on moral and civic values for the students' personal development. The school is also a teacher-training center, and a place where public institutions can send people to improve their English skills.

Currently, Ecole Ruban Vert supports the full tuition for ten percent of its students through scholarships, but the goal is that this program will be extended to at least twenty percent of young Gabonese students, encouraging them to develop their creativity and leadership, to become the future leaders of our nation.

How do your key initiatives of healthcare, education and women's empowerment fit into the wider context of equality in Gabon?
Our healthcare actions are focused on access to care for all, especially around cancer prevention and treatment. In practice, this has meant free and convenient screening for the two most common forms of female cancers, cervical and breast. We also enable the most vulnerable and those people living in remote areas of Gabon to undergo their cancer treatment in the best conditions. This is the mission of the Maison d'Alice, which is one of the flagship projects of the Foundation.

With the Jobs Book, every Gabonese student has access to the same information on job-creating sectors in Gabon and the most in-demand professions in order to help guide them and promote a better definition of professional development.

The Ozavino Scholarship gives a chance to the brightest young Gabonese without discriminating by social or economic background. It enables students to study in the best schools in the world and bring the most efficient educational methods back to Gabon. These diverse initiatives contribute to a single goal: to allow the fair and responsible development of our country, which should not exclude any of its children.

How do these initiatives impact the wider African region?
Each of our projects plays a part in developing new ideas which can have applications and social impact across the region. Take the example of 'Pink October', its global success is self-evident, but in Africa, only 3 countries dedicate this month to the fight against cancer. In Central Africa, Gabon was the first. So last year, we scoured our cities and promoted awareness to men and women on the importance of early detection with a caravan that took us across the country.

Additionally, we leverage the resources that Gabon can offer, like the Libreville Cancer Institute, which are unique in the Central African sub-region, and aim to make them an center of excellence and a model for Africa. Our work is all about impact that can be reproduced on a larger scale -- not only in our country, but also elsewhere in Africa.

It is the same for the Jobs Book, (a book of career advice for young Gabonese) an initiative that was widely praised by many who visited our booth at the New York Africa Forum, a major international event. We even had requests for translation into English for our Anglophone neighbors!

How the is the Foundation helping to beat female cancers?
The Foundation works in three areas: prevention, assistance, and advocacy. Prevention primarily targets cervical and breast cancer, which are the most common female cancers in Gabon (and sub-Saharan Africa). We have been able to reach over 77,000 people since launching our operations on cancer almost 3 years ago.

Nearly 25,000 women have been examined with the 47 early detection devices installed in the health centers and hospitals we support directly. This support has resulted in the training of more than 200 physicians, midwives, and gynecologists. In 2014, we also launched major awareness campaigns in Gabon with "Pink October". Our participation in the Libreville Marathon, under the banner of the fight against women's cancer, has also been a good way to raise awareness and mobilize women against the disease.

We also help train physicians in oncology and nuclear medicine and provide maintenance for radiotherapy equipment at the Cancer Institute of Libreville, Gabon, in partnership with the Foundation Lalla Salma of Morocco. We also support patients directly, where necessary, with donations of cancer-fighting drugs. Today, 1,127 patients are cared for under this program.

2016 will see the opening of the Maison d'Alice, a state-of-the-art facility whose objective is to support adults and children with cancer, so they can follow their treatment in better accommodation, and psychological support. Finally, we undertake high level advocacy to ensure more free acts of prevention and treatment.

What are your initiatives to supporting women in reaching their full potential?
To reach your full potential, you have to first believe in your abilities and allow yourself to exercise leadership. In Africa, especially in Gabon, more and more women realize this, but we must encourage them to be more comfortable in the spotlight and become role models for our younger ones.

When I go to schools to meet students, I encourage women leaders to accompany me to tell their stories and how they achieved their childhood dreams. However, our young people have stereotypes that are not easy to deconstruct. So, our education projects encourage young girls not to limit in their career choices and to discover careers they would have never imagined doing, especially in technical and scientific fields. The Ozavino Scholarship also currently funds Gabonese youth in medicine, engineering, and political science.

I have every faith that these liberated young women will influence others and convince them of their way of thinking.