8 March 2018

Liberia: Battle for Women's Rights Yet to Be Won, Says Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Photo: The Observer
Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Liberia's ex-president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has urged women to "Dream Big" on International Women's Day. Sirleaf, who served two terms, recently won the prestigious Mo Ibrahim prize in recognition of her work in leading Liberia's recovery from years of civil war.

"I knew that I would be a target [as a woman] but I also knew I had all the qualifications to be president," Johnson Sirleaf told RFI on International Women's Day.

Indeed, Africa's first elected female president was already a skilled politician by the time she took over her country's reigns in 2006.

"My journey was a long one," she says, in reference to the four elections she fought, winning two - in 2005 and 2011.

"I had absolutely no fear of running for president," she insists, saying being a woman wasn't a barrier.

But "I knew that I would have to represent the expectations, the aspirations of women in Liberia, in Africa and beyond," she acknowledges.

Aftermath of civil war

Gender wasn't the only challenge. Sirleaf took the leadership of a nation of 3.5 million people from multiple ethnic groups, facing high unemployment and debt, following 14 years of civil war.

Her optimism and level-headedness is all the more astounding given the complete disarray she found and Sirleaf's strength is what's made her internationally renowned.

Her accomplishment in lifting Liberia out of ruin and onto the path of peace and reconciliation was recognised last month by the Mo Ibrahim Prize committtee, which awarded her five million dollars (four million euros) for excellence in African leadership.

Mixed record on corruption

Her greatest achievement was "that I had 12 consecutive years of peace after decades of conflict and did it in an environment of despair", she believes.

Yet critics have lambasted Sirleaf for her moral record and failing to reign in corruption.

That's not fair, she argues, accusing them of short-sightedness and failing to see how "deep-rooted" corruption is.

But, she admits, "We could have done more, I perhaps could have done more."

The 79-year-old hopes that her successor George Weah will go further.

"He lacks the kind of political baggage that I had because I had already been in politics in four different elections. That carries a certain amount of restraint and obligation to others."

Yet the fact that the Mo Ibrahim prize committee still awarded her the coveted prize, after two years without a worthy winner, is, in her words "recognition of how far Liberia has come."

#MeToo in Africa

So, too, has she. The former activist, banker, UN bureaucrat and women's advocate, has pursued many lives. And she wants other women to be as courageous as her.

"Dream big, pursue your dreams, focus on your goals," she urged them on International Women's Day.

As for her won goals, Sirleaf has vowed to continue fighting for women's rights, especially in ending the rape of young girls in Liberia.

"It's a battle that has not been won," she admits, even if during her tenure rape was made a non-bailable offence and a special court was established for such cases.

"It's no longer hidden," she comments, saying that the recent #MeToo and Time's Up movements that have swept the globe, could also take root in Africa.

"It's having relevance already in Africa," Sirleaf says, referring to the mushrooming of women's groups that aim to ensure "that not only are women free from violence but that women have equal opportunity to pursue their goals".

Her final message to women on Internatioal Women's Day: "Stay strong, and have the courage to keep moving forward."

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