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President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: A Woman Making History

March 8, 2010

30 Women Making History
In recognition of the 30th anniversary of Women’s History Month, Women’s Media Center is profiling 30 extraordinary women making history.  Our goal is to raise $10,000 to support WMC Exclusives — every dollar raised will go directly toward hiring women writers to comment on major news stories and report topics often neglected by the mainstream media. Will you contribute $30?
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President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: A Woman Making History by Jehmu Greene In celebration of International Women's Day, I want to highlight a woman living an ocean away who's already made history on a massive scale, including a profound impact on my extended family living in Liberia. When she was elected President of Liberia in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first woman to elected to lead an African country.  As the daughter of Liberian immigrants, President Sirleaf's political rise resonates strongly with me. I had the honor of meeting her in August 2008, while traveling with a Clinton Foundation delegation to explore Liberia's work on malaria and health services. (Read more about the Foundation's work in Liberia here, and read a staff blog post on the trip – including a photo of Bill Clinton in Monrovia, Liberia – here.) Now campaigning for re-election, Sirleaf's platform relies not only on her raw intelligence and charisma, but also substantial distance she's brought her nation in her short time as head of state. As Ruthie Ackerman pointed out in her WMC Exclusive last month, Sirleaf not only symbolizes women's progress but fights for it with policy that impacts the daily lives of Liberian women. In the last four years alone, Sirleaf established a special rape court for victims of gender-based violence, passed the 2006 Rape Amendment Act imposing stricter penalties and denying bail for the worst violations, and created women and children protection units within communities. Sirleaf's faith in women, and her passion to empower them, comes in part from her traumatizing experiences during Liberia's civil war. Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary by Gini Reticker and The Daphne Foundation's Abigail Disney, chronicles the courage and determination of Liberian women who, throughout the nation's devastation in the 1990's and early 2000's, staged peaceful protests and successfully forced a resolution during stalled peace talks. Watch a trailer of this powerful film– or better yet see the whole thing – to get a rich and striking portrait of women who quite literally risked their lives in the name of peace. When Sirleaf faced rebel soldiers who vowed to bury her alive, she remembers defending herself by saying: “You can’t do this. Think of your mother.” Sirleaf also worked to ensure that women become embedded in Liberia's political life, with six women holding top cabinet positions in Foreign, Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, Sports and Gender ministries. “Women have stronger commitment. They work harder," she said. "They’re honest, and the experience justifies it." Sirleaf's own experience is one of determination, pain, grit, and endurance. Her bid for re-election, she says, is grounded in a desire to maintain leadership during her nation's long and difficult transition out of war – and into a peace that she has already helped to create not just for former combatants, but also for women. As we highlight her work, we also celebrate the women worldwide who are currently serving the highest office in their nations, and look forward to the historic day that a woman from the United States is included on this list: Michelle Bachelet, Chile Laura Chinchilla (president-elect), Costa Rica Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania Tarja Kaarina Halonen, Finland Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh Jadranka Kosor, Croatia Doris Leuthard, Switzerland Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Philippines Mary McAleese, Ireland Angela Merkel, Germany Pratibha Patil, India Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland