Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for 2011 and President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa, spoke on many topics including women’s empowerment in Africa at an event sponsored by Georgetown University’s Global Human Development Program (GHD) in Copley Formal Lounge on December 6. Sirleaf was introduced by Dean of the School of Foreign Service Joel Hellman and, after giving a keynote address, took part in a discussion with GHD Donald F. McHenry Chair Professor Steven Radelet.
Beginning her talk by addressing the challenges facing Liberia as she prepares to step down, Sirleaf explained that the institutions of government that were largely formed under her rule remain strong despite controversy over the country’s October 10 election. No candidate in that election received the required majority, so a runoff election was scheduled. However, that second-round vote was stayed by order of the Supreme Court in November after complaints of election fraud from three of the candidates.
The president made clear that the National Election Commission (NEC) found no evidence of widespread or systemic election fraud in the October 10 vote, but the Supreme Court must consider an appeal of the NEC ruling before the runoff can be held. Meanwhile, Sirleaf, president since 2006, remains in power until a new president can be declared.
“The institutions we have built following 30 years of conflict are strong and reliant. These institutions are laying foundations for the next generation of democratically elected leaders,” Sirleaf said to applause.
In 2011, Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Echoing this sentiment in her speech on December 6, Sirleaf said, “There must be a global effort to ensure that women have access to resources and networks required to propel them to positions of power in government.”
Sirleaf’s keynote speech focused mainly on the progress women in Liberia have made since her election in 2006 following the conclusion of almost 12 years of bloody civil war.
“Over the course of the last 20 years, Sub-Saharan Africa has boasted some of the most dramatic breakthroughs in women’s political representation in national legislative bodies,” she said.
Cautioning the audience not to take this as a sure sign of fast-improving gender relations, Sirleaf cited the 2016 McKinsey and Company report “Women Matter Africa,” which revealed that increased female membership in government positions does not always result in wider female empowerment.
The president also spoke widely about issues of sexual harassment and assault, calling such crimes “despicable” and urging leaders of countries, businesses, and nonprofits everywhere to end the toleration of such acts. She did acknowledge some political shortcomings for her tenure, however, saying, “As of today, we have not passed the domestic violence law due to the battle with the legislature who continue to view the practice of female genital mutilation as a valid cultural practice.” Sirleaf committed to trying her hardest to pass this law in the remainder of her term.
Quoting a 2011 United Nations General Assembly resolution, Sirleaf said, “Women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized in the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory law, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, low levels of education, lack of access to healthcare, and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women.” She stressed how important it is to change ideas and cultural norms to prevent any improvements to women’s lives and enfranchisement from being “superficial and temporary.”
Sirleaf made clear that top-down change is insufficient, attributing the failure of gender membership quotas in legislatures to bring real improvements to women’s lives to this mentality. She instead advocated the use of education to end gender inequality and empower women in politics, saying, “The stage to empower women’s political participation begins when households and communities denounce the subordination of women, when the girl child is entitled to the same education [sic]opportunities as her brother.”
Toward the end of her keynote speech, Sirleaf quoted Georgetown professor and former-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “Success without democracy is improbable, and democracy without women is impossible.” Sirleaf made clear in her speech that it is the strong, democratic institutions and rights to free speech, press, and assembly that she has championed that will ultimately lead to gender equality in Liberia and the world. “Democracy is the system of government that surpasses all others.”