Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Africa’s first elected female leader

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, known as Liberia’s ‘Iron Lady’, was the first woman to be elected as a head of state for an African country. She has been involved in politics in Liberia since 1971, and has had a wide ranging influence on the political situation there. Sirleaf comes from a Western educated background and studied at Harvard. Some criticism has been made of her educational origins. It is possible to see this experience abroad, such as working for the World Bank to be beneficial to her status in Liberia and the international community. This has therefore contributed to her wide ranging progress as Liberia’s leader.


Sirleaf’s focus on human rights, and on creating peace has been vital in combating these issues, as her work has seen tangible effects throughout Liberia. She, and two other received their Nobel prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”. Sirleaf has proven the necessity of female leaders and political representatives in order to begin to achieve genuine gender equality universally, and particularly in Liberia. The prize was awarded equally to Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. Their collective work, especially in the context of the difficulties of Liberia’s civil war maintained focus on women’s development throughout. By working to maintain lasting peace in Liberia, their work has made huge strides in beginning to advance equality.


Liberia, has to some extent struggled in advancing women’s education. It was particularly badly affected by the Ebola virus. This became a catastrophic difficulty for development that Sirleaf had to resolve. Therefore, her progress in the area of education development was affected. A lack of female presence in Liberia’s Senate and House of Representatives has also held back her efforts on gender equality. A watered down bill on rape sentences, and an amended sexual violence executive order were both particularly controversial.. Equally, a lack of implementation at the local level means that well-intentioned national laws have varied, and even little to no impact.


Most recently, Sirleaf has won the Ibrahim African leadership prize – something that has only been awarded five times. The reason for this award was said by the committee to be that she “laid the foundations on which Liberia can now build.” This demonstrates the excellence of Sirleaf’s presidency. She may have partially hindered by lack of parliamentary support, and difficult political factors, but regardless will have an enormous legacy. Sirleaf will have a long-lasting effect as a political role model in Liberia, and throughout the world. Sirleaf has been able to overcome Liberia’s post-war tensions, and she has made a lasting impact as Africa’s first female leader, sustaining peace in the region.



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