October 11, 2011 News
On Tuesday 29th March 2011, following our audience with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Mariella had the chance to ask a few questions to the President. Last Friday, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, along with 2 other women, and she is now running for a second term – elections are taking place today in Liberia.
Mariella Frostrup: First of all, I wanted to ask what the FAS African Gender Award means to you?
President Johnson Sirleaf: Being recognised by FAS is very important to me, because it says that we recognise the amount that we’ve done in Liberia to empower women. Liberia has come a long way. Most of our women are seriously disadvantaged, our young girls who are out of school. And we’ve been able to give them the self-empowerment where today they have a voice in society and a role in leadership positions. The young girls are in school. And recognition by FAS just gives us added impetus and added momentum to continue on the path until we make sure that there is full gender equality. And we also feel that in accepting it, it’s an appreciation for the work of FAS and what FAS has done for the African continent to forward women’s empowerment, to put forward women’s participation and equity for women. So for me it’s just bringing the two success stories together.
Mariella Frostrup: Why do you feel that female empowerment in Africa is particularly important?
President Johnson Sirleaf: Because women have really carried the burden of our economy. It’s the women who are largely the farmers, the women who are the marketeers, the women who carry the burden of the family. And so just being able to promote them and enable them to take their rightful place in society is a recognition of the role they play. And the fact that the country doesn’t really grow until it can recognise the contribution and potential of all of its citizens. Leaving women behind, as has happened with the girl child not having the opportunity to go to school, with the women staying in the markets and on the farm, not having the chance to get an education, denies the country that critical mass that would be necessary if women were part of the structures and the institutions of government. So no nation prospers unless there’s full recognition of the potential of women and in fact allowing women to participate in society.
Mariella Frostrup: Isn’t there a sense as well that it makes financial sense?
President Johnson Sirleaf: Oh, it makes very much financial sense. I’d say women are better managers of finance than anyone. They manage the home, they manage their businesses, and it makes economic sense because the contribution of women will enable the country to even increase their performance in GDP.
Mariella Frostrup: Is there something particular, do you think, about Liberian women? Because we’ve met some extraordinary women here in just 24 hours, I also wondered, as a little girl whether you ever had an expectation that one day you might be President?
President Johnson Sirleaf: No, absolutely not. When I was a girl I think I would just follow my mother’s footstep, become a teacher. Those were the conventional things that women went into. But we’re so pleased that we’ve come a long way from that, where women can be anything they want to be, including head of state or President, as I am. Most of our women are beginning to know that they can indeed, if they apply themselves and get the right education and qualification, then they can be what they want to be. We’re so pleased with the changing world in this regard.
Mariella Frostrup: Do you think that that’s perhaps your greatest achievement in this term that you’ve had in office, that around Liberia there are women, probably around Africa, inspired by the fact that you’re in this position?
President Johnson Sirleaf: Oh, there’s no doubt about that. Go around the continent, and even beyond the continent, and meet women, young women, girls. What we’ve been able to do, not only to compete effectively– but to start the transformation of Liberia at a time when, post-conflict, when we were in difficult times and nobody thought a woman could lead a country out of the desperate state in which it found itself. But working with other strong women in Liberia who have set the example for me, we’ve been able to do it. That has been so inspiring. First by our own women and our own girls here, I’ll visit the most remote village in the country and there will be a young girl there who’s taking centre stage, who’s talking and saying what she wants to be. That gives me added inspiration, that gives me more motivation, and I represent the expectations, the aspirations of women, particularly in Africa, and so my success is their success and it opens the door so wide for many to follow.
Mariella Frostrup: I suppose in a way there’s a kind of parallel with someone like President Obama, who being the first black man in office, he had so much of the hope of the people with him when he took office. Again, women will have had so much expectation of you. Has that been in a way a burden as well, because they need so much and it’s only possible to achieve things very slowly?
President Johnson Sirleaf: Well, it’s a responsibility that’s humbling. Because I know that I’ll be watched in everything I do, everything I say. The progress we make will always be looked at, examined for its consequences and its effect and its impact. And that’s enough to give people a heavy responsibility. But in that responsibility come strength and courage too. Because I know that I must succeed. I must succeed not only for myself, for my country, but I must succeed for the women all over Africa. And so I take my strength from that.
Mariella Frostrup: Can you explain for those in my country who don’t yet understand why supporting African women is of paramount importance?
President Johnson Sirleaf: African women represent the real catalysing element in society. They have carried the burden of feeding the nation. They’ve carried the burden of being the ones that suffer in times of difficulties. They have been the more robust in society. They have been the ones that, when all things fail, they are there to promote peace, to advocate, to reduce tensions in society. And they have been so disadvantaged while they’ve carried these burdens. So today all the effort that is being made to enhance them, to empower them, to enable them to make an even greater contribution, but with much more abilities through education – and the statistics are very clear, where there are women empowerment the country’s economy expands, per capita income is increased, the level of tension in society is reduced, so any country that wants to prosper and to have sustained growth and development have got to come up with strategies that enable them to empower women.
Mariella Frostrup: What do you think is the biggest challenge that you’re still facing? I mean, you’re coming up for re-election, the biggest challenge in terms of gender? You know, you’ve achieved a lot but I’m sure there’s still an awful lot more you want to do.
President Johnson Sirleaf: Our biggest challenge is the retention of our young girls in school. I mentioned that we enforce compulsory primary school education and every girl has gone, and its free. But as they progress, moving from primary schools into secondary schools, because of the poverty of family, the chances are they then leave school either to work to support their families or there’s prostitution, or you know, they have children too early, there’s pregnancy, child pregnancy. And our biggest challenge now is to find a means whereby we can provide them and their families with the sustenance that will keep them in school until they can reach the place where they can finish high school, college. Once we’ve taken them through high school, then that quest for knowledge, the quest for becoming a professional is there. It’s that danger period between primary and college that presents our major challenge. And this is why some of the programmes we have in the empowerment of adolescent girls will help us to address that problem.
Mariella Frostrup: Really one last thing, I noticed on the way here there’s a giant poster of an African man, and it said, ‘real men don’t rape.’ And I wondered how – because obviously there are cultural issues with gender equality – I wondered how you were negotiating those?
President Johnson Sirleaf: Well, you know, rape has continued to be a problem in our society, and it’s a question – it comes perhaps from the war days when women were victimised, and it’s left, you know, in some of the habits of men that they can just take advantage of women because they’re, you know, the weaker sex. We’ve been interested in sensitisation. We’ve got some strong laws. For example, we made rape an indictable crime. But that’s not enough, the punishment is not enough, we’ve got to change the mindset. And so those posters are to bring to the consciousness of the men that if you’re a real man, you know, really you protect women. You think about your mother and your children. To a certain extent it works, but we knowledge at it. Digoxin