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Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf urges global efforts to bolster women’s leadership at International Women’s Day World Bank event

Since the first International Women’s Day was held over a century ago, much progress has been made toward gender equity as a fundamental human right and the basis for a prosperous world – emphasized by Goal #5 of the SDGs. However, the latest Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum indicates that – at the current rate of progress to close the gender gap – it will take 132 years to reach full parity in Africa and around the world.

To turn the tide for women and girls, it is crucial to address their needs and aspirations with the relevant resources and support mechanisms through public and private sector initiatives.

In a keynote address delivered at a World Bank event in Washington D.C., on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2023, titled, ‘Accelerate Equality and Empowerment: How Women’s Leadership and Collective Action Can Make a Difference,’ former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf emphasized the role of equity in helping women and girls access education, as well as economic, and public leadership opportunities.

Pointing to the crucial role that development institutions, such as the World Bank, play in challenging inequities and injustices, President Sirleaf stressed the need to urgently address the demands of youth; she added, changes must be made in order to accommodate the ambitions and aspirations of the youth who aspire for “more leadership, and more participation.”

The key question to address is how to develop local institutions in order to give young people, and particularly women, a place in society where they can achieve their leadership potential, President Sirleaf said.

While highlighting the latest advancements in women’s leadership, including in legislatures and global institutions, she pointed out that women are still facing considerable barriers that prevent them from reaching positions of power in their countries, not least on the African continent. The EJS Center’s Data Hub has shown that only two countries in West Africa have over 30% women’s representation in legislative chambers and that there have only been three African women heads of state.

“Unless those leaders who have the resources can see the importance of change at this particular point in time, then we know that we’re going to face a very difficult world where we will see those at the margins being left behind – and those who suffer most are women.”

Resources have to be put in place at the community level where quality education and health services are most needed, she emphasized. Girls’ education and accessible healthcare are often the first things to go when communities are struck by fragility, conflict, or violence. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 52 million girls are out of school – that’s more than a third of the global figure.

“We have to start with girls’ education to ensure that we have enough well-educated, knowledgeable women… able to hold leadership positions.”

Under the IWD’s 2023 theme of #EmbracingEquity, President Sirleaf also commended the World Bank’s efforts to develop programs that accelerate the drive toward global gender equity and called for intensifying these efforts:

“The World Bank has the capacity to do even more and to be able to set itself up as the that really turns the situation around toward more justice, more equity, more young women leaders.”

She concluded her intervention with a plea to support women in their endeavors to participate at the highest levels in decision-making processes across the globe:

“Women have to be able to challenge, to be able to compete, to be able to claim leadership and to support other women.”

Speakers at the event in Washington D.C. included the World Bank’s Managing Director of Operations, Axel van Trotsenburg, and the World Bank’s Acting Managing Director of Development Policy & Partnerships and Vice President for Human Development, Mamta Murthi. The event was hosted by Kimberly Gire, Founder & Chair, of Global Women Leaders Strategic Philanthropy, who also introduced Madam Sirleaf.

In addition, the visit to the United States was an opportunity for President Sirleaf to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House to discuss ways to support African women leaders and efforts to champion the rights of women and girls. President Sirleaf also met with former US Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and with the IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva with whom she discussed women’s economic participation and the progress toward global gender equity.

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