Africa’s First Female Heads of State on the Power of Women in Government


October 4, 2012


Last week, Kathy Calvin, CEO of the United Nations Foundation moderated a far-reaching discussion ‘Holding Ourselves Accountable for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment’ hosted by the Millennium Development Corporation.

President_BandaWhen President Banda came to power, she had to make decisions about whether to include former adversaries at the table. Her response was a different approach from her predecessors’: “I am a mother, I had to embrace everybody.” Banda felt it critical that she be the first to demonstrate forgiveness in order to begin a process of healing in her country, by appointing Cabinet members from her opposition and showing what she had personally experienced was in the past.

The two leaders engaged in a passionate conversation about the way forward for their respective nations, and the critical role women and men must play in creating change.

“The women are just so excited about being part of the process of change,” began President Johnson Sirleaf, “excited about being part of creating an environment where women can take their rightful place. They have a voice. The most important part is it extends not just to professional women or women in government, but to rural women and market women—who all of a sudden can stand up in a meeting and say what they want to say, express themselves and demand the right to be heard.”

SirleafJohnson Sirleaf commented on the state of the world’s goals for women (reflected in several of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the United Nations has in place to achieve by 2015). “We should not take our eye off the MDGs…we still have three years…but we must go beyond them.” She called for the inclusion of sustainability for the environment to be included in these goals. She also invited us, civil society, to be engaged. She sees our role as providing accountability, to be the watchdogs of society. “No longer can people hide anything in our society.” Civil society helps ensure openness and transparency.

President Banda issued a call for unity, “Africa will not realize full social and economic development if men and women are not [both] sitting at the policy formulating table. It’s not possible. And that must happen now, it cannot be postponed.” She also concluded with this essential message: “We know what to do to change our situation. We just need partners to help us make it happen…listen, come and listen to us.”

Both leaders pointed to violence against women in their countries as a major obstacle to progress. President Johnson Sirleaf suggested the solution lies in including more women in government. The two nations have very different histories, and yet the role of women in overcoming past pains appears to be just as essential as stabilizing foreign relations or healing from decades of war.

You can watch a few highlights of this historical meeting here:

Take Action Challenge: Several of our partners are actively helping girls and women become empowered to make more informed decisions for themselves and their families.

? Learn more about Mother2Mother’s work in helping mothers with HIV/AIDS avoid transmission to their babies and then how those same women are teaching other mothers how to keep their babies HIV/AIDS free.

? Every Mother Counts is raising awareness and action to help save mothers from needless death and injury during complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

? Women Deliver is launching a new crowdfunding platform that will exclusively support projects for girls and women’s health, economic empowerment and safety. Check out

? The White Ribbon Alliance trains local grassroots members on how to effectively mobilize and become activists for their community needs on the ground. They also work on training midwives and other health workers who directly impact women.

Photo credits: Keith Bedford/Insider Images for United Nations Foundation

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