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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Celebrating Women: Female Trailblazers in Africa, Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Joyce Banda

On the left Banda, and Right Sirleaf

This must truly be the decade for Africa and its women! First Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia and Africa's first female president, and about a week ago Ms. Joyce Banda, the first female president in Malawi. The recent appointment of President Banda puts the urgency and the validity on the efforts women are making in Africa in positions of leadership. Both female presidents can definitely in our opinion serve as trendsetters for what we should expect from female leaders on the continent. In recognizing that it is just not about women being leaders but about quality women being leaders, we celebrate their accomplishments, highlight a few of their challenges and include an outlook to  the future.

Celebrating their accomplishments

To highlight just some of the accomplishments of these women is the least we can do as supporters of women's leadership on the continent. One of the main things to celebrate is that both women are known to be women's rights activists and have supported the women's movement  throughout their careers. This is important for most African societies where although women make up a higher percentage of the population, women's issues aren't always made a priority by governments. Ms Sirleaf has been very involved in various peace building movements in Liberia and has ensured that women's issues are a priority in her country.  She recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts on ensuring women's peace and security in Liberia. Ms Banda through her organization, the Joyce Banda Foundation has been involved in community organizing of women and helping women in Malawi advocate for their rights. Ms Banda is also founder of the National Association for Women which provides opportunities to help women become more economically sustained. Both women have been involved in politics for many years. Ms Sirleaf served as the Finance Minister for Liberia in the 1980's and  held positions in other international institutions. Additionally she has ran for president in past elections. Ms Banda  has held various government level positions including minister of Gender and Community Affairs and also Minister of Foreign Affairs. In more recent times she was the current vice president of Malawi prior to the passing of the president a few days ago. Both women also took over during turbulent times in their countries, For Ms Banda her country is experiencing a very tough economic crisis and the loss of their leader ex President Bingu Wa Muthairu who passed away. In Liberia Ms. Sirleaf was charged with shifting her country towards better economic development after a 14 year civil war and unstable leadership. Finally both women are family women. We are always impressed with women who are able to tackle both of those roles of such high leadership responsibility and a home life.

Challenging Times

For every leader there are challenges and needless to say these women have both experienced their fair share. Ms Sirleaf known to have supported armed rebel leader Charles Taylor in the initial phases of the Liberian civil war, many of the country's residents have critiqued her leadership due to a "2009 report by the country's Truth and  Reconciliation Commission, which named her on a list of people who should not hold public office for 30 years for backing warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor"(Al Jeezera English). Ms Sirleaf has agreed that she indeed supported Mr. Taylor but once she was privy to the actual war crimes he was committing she no longer believed in his cause. For Ms Banda, she was said to have created her own political party once sworn into vice presidency thereby raising a sense of division amongst the government and ill feelings from various political leaders. Regardless of these challenges, both leaders have maintained consistency and forged along to address the particular challenges and the concerns in their countries.

Looking towards the future

Why are quality women leaders in high leadership positions important for us as African women? Both Banda and Sirleaf are trailblazers because they have set the standard that it is possible for women to lead their countries. They have made the question "Are we ready for female presidents in Africa?" realistic. This is also important because issues that women face in our societies will be addressed and given the same amount of attention as other issues. As Banda takes on her position, we wish her the best during these challenging economic times in Malawi.  We hope that both of these ladies do what is best for their countries and keep the priorities of women at forefront of their agendas. In her advice to Ms Banda, Ms. Sirleaf mentioned on BBC's Focus on Africa that the newly elected president should listen to her cabinet of ministers and develop relationships with border countries in beginning to address some of the issues her country is facing. What a great way to see women working together to support each other and share lessons learned to create a quality leadership environment! 

As we await the outcome for the possible appointment of yet another influential woman leader to the world bank Ms  Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, we are really proud and celebrate the women trailblazers in Africa. The journey is not over it has just begun. The term "to whom much is given much is expected" applies to women leaders as well. We as women must allow for other women to occupy spaces as we have access to new positions in our societies. We must also ensure that younger women are mentored through various outlets and speak on behalf of women who need the most support in our societies including those experiencing poverty,domestic violence, war, and various levels of oppressive states.

Till next time,

Keep Changing Africa!


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