On this day in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia and became the first female head of state in Africa.
Not only did Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have some of the best credentials as president, she also had great contacts thanks to her connections worldwide.
Sirleaf had served as a finance minister, thanks to her background in economics and public policy, which she studied at Harvard University and a Master of Public Administration. She also worked at the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, the World Bank, Citibank and United Nations Development Programme, among other roles.
She ventured into politics in 1985 to vie as vice president under Jackson Doe but had to resort to the senate seat after Samuel Doe’s regime arrested her for sedition. She participated in the 1997 elections and later the 2005 elections, when she won and became the 24th President of Liberia.
Her election paved way for the next female presidents in Africa. In 2012, although not elected, Malawi’s Joyce Banda became the president after the demise of Bingu wa Mutharika. She served for two years, becoming the first female president to serve that long on an acting capacity. South Africa’s Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri served the shortest term as acting president, holding office for only 14 hours in September 2008, followed by Guinea-Bissau’s Carmena Pereirawho served for two days in May 1984.
“All girls know that they can be anything now. That transformation is to me one of the most satisfying things”. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia.
In 2015, Mauritius voted for Ameenah Gurib-Fakim through parliamentary vote. She is the third woman to serve as head of state after Queen Elizabeth II and Monique Ohsan Bellepeau, who was the acting president after the resignation of presidents Anerood Jugnauth in 2012 and Kailash Purryag in 2015.
The rise to the top for the women has not been without obstacles, especially in a continent where systemic prejudices that make it difficult for women to get and stay at top leadership positions. From cruel traditions, lack of opportunities, poverty levels and gender-based violence, women in Africa face a myriad of factors in their leadership journey.
A number of countries, including Burundi, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Angola, have instituted affirmative action to ensure women and people with disability have equal opportunities in the employment and leadership.
There is still a long way to go for Africa to accept and elect women leaders. Changing the negative perceptions about women in leadership position and increasing women’s visibility in different quarters will improve chances for women to be leaders.