by Lindsay Swisher
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the outgoing president of Liberia, visited Georgetown on December 6, where she spoke with SFS students, faculty, and notable guests about Liberia’s recent elections and her upcoming transition of power, and women’s political leadership and participation in Africa.
In opening remarks, SFS Dean Joel Hellman shared some of President Sirleaf’s notable accomplishments. In 2011, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work involving women in the non-violent struggle to reestablish peace in Liberia. In 2016, President Sirleaf was named the first female chairperson of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. Most significantly, she governed Liberia over the last 14 years through a period of relative peace and stability following a long and bloody civil war.
In January, President Sirleaf will step down and transfer the presidency of Liberia to a newly elected leader, an issue still being decided through a runoff vote. “In a few weeks, in compliance with the constitution, I will hand over leadership to another democratically elected president, which for Liberia, will be the first time in 74 years. It is an example I hope my African contemporaries will follow,” she said.
“Liberia has yet to decide who its next leader will be, but we all know that this is a decision that belongs to the people, and the people alone,” President Sirleaf said, on the importance of ensuring that the democratic process remains intact. She expressed pride in the fact that, even with uncertainty still facing the outcome of the election, there has been no violence in Liberia.
Women’s Political Participation and Leadership in Africa
President Sirleaf then turned to the main topic of the event, women’s political leadership in Africa. According to her, “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.” Some of this change has come from parity legislation, now in existence in 16 countries in Africa, to ensure more women hold positions of power. Yet there is more work to be done. President Sirleaf referenced a 2016 report titled “Women Matter Africa” from McKinsey & Company, which found that having more women in political positions of power may not actually translate into greater female influence. Change must occur horizontally, at the grassroots level, to impact a greater number of women and girls on a wider variety of gender issues.
“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 and opportunities as her brother,” said President Sirleaf.
One of President Sirleaf’s final goals for her time in office will be continuing to push for the passage of a domestic violence law in Liberia. “Admittedly, I’m running out of time to solve this problem,” President Sirleaf said. Yet she has committed to continuing the fight, alongside allies in the legislature, until her time in office ends.
Key Achievements of Presidency
In a question and answer session following her speech, Dr. Steven Radelet, Director of the Global Human Development program, asked President Sirleaf what she views as her key achievements from her time in office. “A free society, the fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and association,” she said. “I take a beating for it in the media every morning,” she joked, adding, “because people are allowed to say what they want to say. The media is vibrant, with our responsibility, but I think that needed to be done in a society where those virtues were missing, and those values had not been respected.”
President Sirleaf then took questions from Georgetown students in attendance. On what she plans to do next – she’d like to keep sharing her own story and experiences with young people around the world, and continue to find ways to empower women in Liberia. “I also have been building a farm, so if all that doesn’t work out I’ll just go live there,” she joked.