Last week, Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf joined the High-Level Virtual Forum on Women in Governance and Political Participation (WGGP): Enhancing African Women’s Role in Leadership. The forum was focused on the theme, “Leveraging Women’s Leadership in the COVID-19 Response and Beyond”, and was organized by the African Union Commission through the Department of Political Affairs.
In collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the AU Department of Political Affairs is leading the development and implementation of an action plan to promote women’s equal representation and participation in governance. The proposed initiative contributes to the governance pillar of the joint AU-UN African Women Leaders Network (AWLN), of which Madam Sirleaf is a Patron.
The initiative aims to “address the ecosystems, institutions and structures that hold women in leadership back” and “boost women’s role in leadership and in political participation including in relief and recovery decision making process with regard to COVID-19.”
In her opening remarks, Madam Sirleaf highlighted the context in which the conversation was taking place, noting the high stakes for supporting effective leadership amid the COVID-19 pandemic:
“We are in peril if we continue to do business as usual. Particularly as we battle the COVID-19 virus.”
Madam Sirleaf also outlined her personal journey to leadership, in the hope that it would encourage other women to reach for similar roles, and for those around them to support them in doing so. Following her election as the first woman president in Africa, Madam Sirleaf recalled her experience attending her first African Union meeting and the uncertainty she felt about how she may be received. Approaching the hall, a crowd of women gathered and sung her to her seat—providing a remarkable boost of courage:
“We should be symbolic, which can make a big difference when women are approaching a position they’ve never had before. They need that courage, with all the competence they may have, that courage to proceed.”
The journey to leadership was long and sometimes dangerous for Madam Sirleaf, and she called upon the UNDP to commit to support women seeking leadership roles, acting as both a buffer to danger, as well as a propelling force that can overcome obstacles in the way:
“We should not want any other women to sacrifice in this way. The toll on oneself is very heavy, and on our families it is even worse.”
Madam Sirleaf also spoke about the collective responsibility to open doors for more women leaders and to dismantle barriers in their way, noting that they were not barriers built by women, and so it should not be their sole job to remove them. She stressed that the advancement of women’s leadership requires more than training and capacity building, drawing a comparison with efforts to promote racial equality:
“If this was a conversation about racism, It is not women who must change. It is those men who cling to the old ways and attitudes, and propagate negative perceptions of women in leadership.”
Finally, Madam Sirleaf reiterated her call to join hands with other women to promote and support them in leadership positions, and create a future in which we will identify more than individual women’s successes.
“I believe it is not too far in the future when we will recognize multiple women leaders in positions all over the world as a normal occurrence, in every nation, in the body politic.”
She spoke about her hopes for the Amujae Initiative—the flagship program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development (EJS Center)— which is working to achieve this aim.
In addition to Madam Sirleaf’s participation in the discussion, the EJS Center was also represented by two Amujae Leaders—Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings and Upendo Furaha Peneza—along with Amujae Initiative Coaches. We will share insights from their comments in the coming days.
Watch Madam Sirleaf’s comments here from 25:30.