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Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf makes a clarion call for women’s leadership at the Women Deliver 2023 Conference

Advancing gender equality requires long-term commitment, collective action, and the determination to challenge and overcome systemic barriers and obstacles. Critical to these efforts is the presence of women in leadership and decision-making positions in economic, social, and political life. 

Throughout her career, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has taken bold action to drive and advocate for gender equality, especially at the highest levels of leadership. Her vision led to the creation of the EJS Center’s flagship program, the Amujae Initiative – now in its third year – which supports three cohorts of accomplished women leaders hailing from 19 African countries who have excelled in both public and private sector leadership positions.

 At the recent Women Deliver 2023 Conference in Kigali, Rwanda – the first time the conference has been held on the African continent – Madam Sirleaf continued to advocate for women’s equal representation in leadership roles. 

At a Women Deliver side event organized by the Angaza Awards and the African Development Bank (AfDB), she discussed how empowering women to lead in all sectors, including finance, can help the African continent secure a more inclusive and equitable future for all.

The side event brought together a group of African women active in high-level roles in the financial sector, including Amujae Leaders Malado Kaba, AfDB’s Director of Gender, Women and Civil Society; and Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. Ms. Kaba led the AfDB delegation to the conference, calling for increased financial inclusion of women across the African continent.

 Later on, delivering the African Union’s keynote address at a plenary session titled ‘Maputo@20: Bridging the Gap Between Policies and People,’ Madam Sirleaf issued a clarion call for women to stand up and claim their rightful place as leaders in society:

“Women are not asking for favors. Women are competent, able, knowledgeable, courageous, and have the tenacity to be able to stand up and claim leadership.”

 To overcome adversity, challenge stereotypes, and access opportunities for personal development are only but a few of the actions that determine the success of women leaders. In her closing remarks at the conference session on ‘Embracing Feminist Political Leadership in Advancing Democracy,’ Madam Sirleaf discussed the role of women as agents of positive change in social and political realms, and underscored the importance of solidarity among those in leadership positions.

It is the “obligation and responsibility” of women leaders to support and bring in other women to positions of leadership, she stated. The EJS Center’s Amujae Initiative, Madam Sirleaf noted, is putting this principle into action by offering African women leaders the opportunity to grow and develop through interaction and networking, as well as by learning from the legacies of those who preceded them.

Women leaders must not shy away from exercising power either. Adding power to influence allows women to advance to higher positions of public leadership and achieve success:

“We always say as women, ‘We don’t believe in power; we believe in influence’…  But there comes a time as a woman leader when you have to exercise power. When that time comes, don’t be afraid to use it.”

The session was an opportunity for Madam Sirleaf to engage in deep discussions with fellow participants on the challenges that women face in today’s political environment. Panelists included former Georgia State Representative, Stacey Abrams; former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark; Kenyan Member of Parliament Umulkher Harun; French politician and Secretary General for the Generation Equality Forum, Delphine O; Chief Whip of the Official Opposition in the National Assembly of South Africa, Siviwe Gwarube; and KEADILAN National Vice Women Chief, Sangetha Jayakumar. 

Solidarity among women in decision-making roles is a precondition for their success. Speaking with Ms. Abrams, Madam Sirleaf exchanged ideas on how women in public service can empower and support each other throughout their leadership journeys.

As a member of The Elders, Madam Sirleaf works alongside other prominent leaders on addressing existential threats, such as pandemics and conflicts, and on advocating for a just, equitable, and peaceful world. Alongside fellow members – including first woman President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and first Education Minister of Mozambique, Graça Machel – she interacted with young Rwandan women during the conference to learn about their experiences and challenges. 

Rwanda, this year’s Women Deliver host, has achieved great strides in increasing women’s access to public leadership roles. With more than 60% representation in parliament, Rwanda is one of only 6 countries worldwide that have 50% or more women in parliament in single or lower houses. The country has also achieved 46% representation in cabinet positions.

 Meeting with the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, Madam Sirleaf expressed her admiration for the country’s achievement in advancing gender equality across all spheres of life, particularly in public governance.

Learn more about Women Deliver and how it champions gender equality and the rights of girls and women around the world here.

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