Network for Africa salutes First Lady Rosalynn Carter who has died at the age of 96. Four decades ago, when it was not socially acceptable to discuss mental illness, Mrs Carter was a relentless champion for better mental health services.
When her husband was in the White House, Mrs Carter was the force behind the Mental Health Systems Act which set up and supported community mental health centres, an initiative later scrapped by the Reagan administration. She spent years campaigning for mental health treatment to be covered by US health insurance, a measure that finally passed into law in 2008.
Mrs Carter was also committed to recognising the role played by caregivers in our society. As the New York Times obituary put it:
Recognizing the importance of caregiving, she founded and served as president of the board for the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern, her alma mater. Mrs. Carter often noted that there are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.
It’s women doing most of the work in Africa
During one of my conversations with Rosalynn Carter, she told me that in her experience, traveling around Africa seeing Carter Center projects, she was infuriated that economists regarded women as “unproductive” because they did not have formal jobs.
She told me:
When Jimmy and I were talking to a farmer about how his crops were doing, the farmer would always have to defer to his wife when we asked him questions. It turned out that she was doing all the actual work, while he was taking the credit, and the profit, for her back-breaking labour.
She also recognised that the burden of caring for people with mental illness usually fell on women in both Africa and more developed societies.
When the Carters left the White House in 1980, she threw herself into establishing the Carter Center with a focus on poverty, health and democracy. She worked tirelessly, and she was an exhausting presence, sleeping little, always advocating for causes, pestering decision-makers, raising money, and visiting projects. Even in her 80s, when she was fragile and thin, she would stand at polling stations in the African bush in 100 degree heat, making sure people had the right to a free and fair vote.
Please click here to read a fuller article about my reminiscences of Mrs Carter.
Founder, Network for Africa