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Madam Sirleaf calls on African male leaders to take action to end violence against women and girls

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in gender based violence was observed during lockdowns in Africa and around the world. While African countries have made great progress in terms of implementing policies and legal frameworks to combat this issue, violence against women and girls cannot be eradicated without men’s full involvement and cooperation. 

This was the focus of a recent landmark conference convened under the leadership of H.E. Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Chairperson of the African Union (AU), organized alongside former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in her capacity as Patron of the African Women Leaders Network, and H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the AU Commission. 

The first event of its kind, the Men’s Conference on Positive Masculinity convened senior leaders and heads of state from across the continent in Kinshasa, DRC. Building upon the recommendations of “women pioneers of the African Women Leaders Network,” including Amujae Coach and AU Special Envoy on Women, Peace, and Security, Bineta Diop, the aim of the conference was to “galvaniz positive masculinity to end the scourge of violence in Africa.” 

Emphasizing male ownership and accountability, the conference resulted in the publication of the Kinshasa Declaration and Call for Action of the African Union Heads of State on Positive Masculinity in Leadership to End Violence Against Women and Girls in Africa. With this declaration, AU heads of state agreed to condemn gender-based discrimination and violence, committed to engage with women across multiple sectors to provide a participatory and inter-generational approach to combatting gender inequity together, and called upon all men to be role models for boys to define positive expressions of masculinity in Africa. 

During her address to attendees, Madam Sirleaf called on leaders to ask more of men, saying that we all “must listen and take action” to combat violence against women and girls.

Read Madam Sirleaf’s full speech below.

“Excellencies, Distinguished Participants,

I have had the privilege to be part of several momentous events in my life. This is certainly one of them – an unprecedented gathering of the most powerful men on the African continent. A gathering dedicated to making deep inroads into ending the scourge of violence targeted against women and girls, and to changing the mindset and behavior of those men who either engage in the violence or do nothing about it. This meeting acknowledges that men disproportionately are the actors of violence against women and girls, but also demonstrates that there are many men who are allies in the struggle for the rights and empowerment of women and girls.

It is also an emotive and appropriate day to have this meeting, as it coincides with the launch of this year’s global 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. 

In this room, in person, and joining in the virtual world, are many of the allies – you have recognized that gender equity is a transformative act for both women and men, freeing men from the straitjackets of toxic masculinity. 

Many of you have championed policies and legislation on the marriage of children, female genital mutilation, equality in inheritance, dignity for widows, equal access to and enjoyment of education for girls, and financial inclusion of women. We salute you today, in particular, Your Excellency President Tshisekedi Tshilombo, who gave the conference its theme – Positive Masculinity. You took a bold step in agreeing to lead and host, and must be commended for it.

The Conference is enriched by the consultations held before. Our thanks to those who participated so actively. My particular thanks to Bineta Diop and Joyce Mends-Cole for their untiring efforts.

Excellencies, I made the call for this gathering in my capacity as Patron of the African Women Leaders Network (AWLN). So I am not alone as I speak. I know that our two current female African Presidents will also address you. AWLN is a movement of African women, with chapters in many countries, including this one. We are excited, as we believe that this gathering is different from the many which have come before, before Beijing and after. We are reminded of the Maputo Protocol of 2003, and of the Solemn Declaration on the Equality of Men and Women of 2004. We also celebrate parity at the AU Commission. These are worthy of celebration. 

We believe that the spirit and commanding presence of the strong African women, on whose shoulders we stand, are listening and hoping today, for something different. One of those women is Sophie Kanza, the first Congolese woman to gain a university degree. Her push for education for girls, and her career, both at national and international levels, is a source of continuing pride.

We believe that it is only you who can use your leadership for change, and for bringing action to scale. And we believe that your presence here today shows that you believe that ending violence against women and girls is a fundamental human right, and a catalyst and foundation for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2063.

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,

We cannot discuss ending violence against women and girls in isolation of the contexts in which they live. I will mention three – Covid, Conflict, and Climate Change.

Much has been written and spoken about all three. And still much more must be said, as these are the three biggest threats to our very existence, after inequality between women and men. 

The Covid pandemic is still with us. We are only able to have a hybrid meeting today due to a lull, and vaccinations, although vaccine insufficiency continues to plague all our countries. But many cannot even appreciate the current lull in infections and deaths in most African countries, given the disastrous impact it has had on their lives. We have had pandemics before, and this country, and Liberia, my own, have experienced the debilitating effects of Ebola. To prevent future pandemics we need a reset of the international system, as called for by the Kikwete and IPPPR reports.

We must have a united voice for equality in vaccinations, based on an understanding that the virus mutates and grows stronger in the absence of a shared solidarity of innovations and protections. We must also call for recognition and support for health workers, the majority of whom are female. Like the heroines of past years, they are at the face, laying down their lives to save ours. 

Many of our countries are plagued by armed conflicts. Our sisters and brothers are either displaced in their own countries or refugees elsewhere. I know how conflict can devastate a country, and sap the energy and potential of its people, sometimes even changing the national characteristics, and ensuing people to previously unknown levels of brutality. Violence against women and girls is the trademark of armed conflict, using women’s bodies as part of the battleground. I appeal to you today to do more to end these situations through dialogue, wherever possible.

COP26 has just concluded, and we hope that the hard won agreements will be honored in reality and not in the breach. Africa is already facing huge challenges wrought by climate change. Our food security is vulnerable to floods, persistent droughts, and land degradation. Who has not seen the photos of women and girls walking increasingly long and tiring distances to find that wells are either completely dried up or only yielding more mud than water?

Young people are placing the blame squarely on our shoulders and calling for future proofing for themselves. We must listen and take action.

Excellencies, three of our countries have exceeded or are close to parity in parliament seats. But this is not enough. One of my main regrets is that I did not see more women gain legislative seats while I was in Office. But some of it was beyond my control, as it was the purview of political parties to field their chosen candidates, in the absence of legislation requiring a quota. I am an advocate of quotas – the slow pace of women reaching public and also private sector leadership requires many types of affirmative measures. 

I have decided, therefore to dedicate the rest of my life, to supporting women to smash glass or concrete ceilings. My Amujae Leaders’ Initiative currently has 30 women who are doing great things and are poised to do even greater for Africa, if the environment is fair and enabling. I dream of   building a physical Center, in the hope of using it as a place where women and male allies can gather to discuss, strategize, learn and take action. In this regard, I thank those of you who kindly took the time to do the video for the Have Her Back campaign launched by the Center. I hope many others will join this effort and social media campaign.

Excellencies, as I close, let me ask for three things:

One, please take the outcomes of this unprecedented Conference to the next African Union – in 2022. These will be part of your important legacies. 

Second, please ensure that we launch the process of formulation and adopting a Convention on Ending Violence against Women and Girls and supporting Positive Masculinity. 

Third, I ask that this be the last meeting of its kind. That sounds shocking but I mean that, if you lead and act, there will be no need for us to to reconvene. 

Excellencies, I am honored and grateful. On behalf of the women of Africa, I look forward to your strong commitments.

Thank you.”

The conference was attended in-person by African leaders including  H.E. Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 2021 African Union Chairperson; H.E. Nana Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana, and African Union Leader on Gender and Development Issues in Africa; H.E. Macky Sall, President of the Republic of Senegal, 2022 incoming African Union Chairperson, and African Union Champion on Education; H.E. Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda, and African Union Leader on Institutional Reforms; H.E. Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo; H.E. Hakainde Hichilema, President of the Republic of Zambia, Leader of Elimination of Early Child Marriage; H.E. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, President of Burkina Faso, Leader of Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation; and H.E. Faure Gnassingbé, President of the Republic of Togo.

Other leaders attended virtually, including H.E. Sahle-Work Zewde, President of the Federal Democratic Republic Ethiopia; H.E. Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of the Republic of Tanzania; and H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission.

The conference featured recorded messages from H.E. Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations; and H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Republic of Kenya.

Watch the full conference here.

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