INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY

To give a voice to the unheard, we must promote more women leaders

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

In Summary
  • It is not just at national level that we should be seeking to add more women leaders
  • They are also critical to successful governance at regional and community levels
Image: Ozone

Much has been written in recent months about the effectiveness of women leaders throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. They have been lauded for their empathy, their straightforwardness and honesty, and for swift, decisive action. The results confirm the narrative—countries with women leaders have reported half of the deaths of those led by their male counterparts.

As we reflect on the past year on this International Women’s Day, it is clear that we need more women leaders, across Africa and around the world. In Africa, women hold 24 per cent of positions across upper and lower chambers, just below the global average of 25 per cent. Only Rwanda has achieved parity with men in its representation of women in its parliamentary system.

Africa’s targets are commendable. The African Union’s Agenda 2063 sets a goal of 50 per cent women’s representation, significantly higher than the 30 per cent laid out in the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Yet at the end of 2020 there were only three African countries with sitting women prime ministers and one with a woman president.

We could argue that we are doing better than other parts of the world, that the United States has only just sworn in its first woman vice president. But we should not be taking our benchmarks from other countries. Instead, we should set our own and become the benchmark against which other nations will set their targets.

It is not just at national level that we should be seeking to add more women leaders. They are also critical to successful governance at regional and community levels. The Amujae Leaders, a group of women selected by the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development for their capacity in leadership roles, has shown how women did not merely understand what work needed to be done to help communities deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, they also took action.

That action has undoubtedly saved lives, helping to ensure women have access to maternal healthcare, safe spaces to escape the domestic abuse that skyrocketed during lockdowns, and are able to feed their families when the closure of many parts of the informal economy meant that many women could not work.

The Amujae Leaders, a group of women selected by the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development for their capacity in leadership roles, has shown how women did not merely understand what work needed to be done to help communities deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, they also took action.

Beyond the Amujae Leaders, we have found even more evidence of the strength of women leaders in the response to the pandemic. Suspecting that there were many Covid-19 heroines out there who had not received broader recognition, we asked people to nominate women serving their communities or countries with distinction.

We were quite simply overwhelmed by the response. Nominees came from a range of sectors and backgrounds, including healthcare, activism, public service, education, and the arts, but what they all had in common was that they had demonstrated strong leadership and dedication to their communities by affecting positive change during these very challenging times. Too often they are unseen and unheard, and yet they are the ones who have kept Africa going, serving on the front line during the coronavirus response work.

Even pre-pandemic they were at the forefront of caring roles, enabling their children to receive an education and playing a vital role in the informal sector to ensure families could buy the provisions they need.

They have cared for the sick, maintained education when schools are closed, and played a vital role at a community level in countering misinformation about the pandemic—exposing fraudulent treatments as well as enabling and enforcing the good hygiene practices needed to fight this virus.

This is of course not the first-time women have fulfilled these roles in Africa. During the Ebola outbreak in the course of my own presidency in Liberia, women were critical in helping us to stop the spread of that dreadful disease. As the Covid-19 vaccine rollout ramps up across Africa, they will play yet another vital role as trusted advisers in their communities to encourage people to take up the opportunity to be vaccinated.

To rebuild a more inclusive Africa in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must enable more women to take a seat at the tables where decisions are made, ensure that their voices are heard, and that policies are shaped to deliver a more equitable future.

Let’s work for a future that has women at the forefront of designing education and healthcare systems for those who need them most, and in which our young people can thrive and enable Africa to play a role equal to the world’s biggest economic powers.

Through the Amujae Initiative, we are working hard to build the capacity of women to step into and excel in leadership roles at all levels and to create a flood of women leaders for the future.

This International Women’s Day, I call upon the rest of Africa to work with us to make the space these women need to take their place as leaders, and to ensure that the unseen and unheard become the seen and the heard.

Retired Liberian President