There are women all across the world today, who have not only transcended the glass ceiling that holds them down but have exhibited courage of a sort so rare that they create a new watershed for other women like them. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female President in the continent of Africa is one such exceptional lady. Currently reigning as Liberia’s President, she has survived a turbulent quarter century in Liberia’s history starting when she was nearly killed as a Cabinet minister during a coup d’etat against William Tolbert in 1980.
Five years later she was sentenced to a life in prison by Samuel Doe, the then-head of government and served a partial sentence before moving onto Washington DC. She then returned to her Liberia for a third time in 1997, as an economist, working for the World Bank and Citibank in Africa. After running unsuccessfully against Charles Taylor in the 1997 presidential election, the latter charged her with treason. In 2005, after campaigning for the removal of President Taylor, Johnson Sirleaf took over as leader of the Unity Party. That year, promising economic development and an end to corruption and civil war, she was elected to the Liberian presidency. She subsequently won both a re-election and the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011.
According to Sirleaf’s own accounts of that unforgiving period when she was imprisoned, “An African prison is nothing to write home about. You know, the conditions are harsh. You get a meal a day and there is not much to that meal and there are not too much sanitation facilities and sleeping facilities. You know, they’re meagre, so it’s tough...so I think faith was a great thing that one knew that, you know, you had a good cause — you’d done the right thing. You had not done anything wrong, your conscience was clear, you were standing up for the things you believed in, and there was a God out there who was going to see you through. You also know that it’s more than survival. If I get out, I will begin to continue to do the things that I know need to be done to change our society.”
Despite an over eight-year regime that has had its share of controversies and dark spots, most notably her persecution of the government’s critics in the country, Sirleaf needs to be lauded for her promotion of women’s issues. As someone who escaped a violent marriage and struggled through single motherhood to overcome poverty and eventually make history as a leader she has proactively pursued legislation for gender equality in her country. Besides presenting the Gender Equity Bill in Liberia which calls for 30 percent of all institutions of governance to be occupied by women she has extensively spoken out against the cycle of poverty and sexual exploitation that 1.3 billion of the world’s poorest women face. In awarding her the Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee cited her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. Since she assumed office in 2006, she has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, promoting economic and social development, and strengthening the position of women”.
At the age of 75, Sirleaf belongs to a generation that has only just been coming out of the shadows of centuries of exploitation and abuse that women have been subject to across most cultures in the world. And while it may be true that the route to women’s equality worldwide is still under construction, women like her function as vital beacons that are set to take 21st century women to a new horizon — and vistas of hope, dignity and happiness.
The author is a spiritual writer with dna