1. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia
In 2006, Sirleaf became the first elected female head in Africa. As the new Liberian president, she had inherited a war-torn country that was desperate for peace after 13 years of civil war and violence. Her administration rebuilt Liberia’s economy, strengthened its infrastructure, erased the enormous national debt and tackled problems like corruption, security, education and women’s rights.
In 2011, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in promoting democracy and gender equality. Nicknamed the “Iron Lady,” Sirleaf continues to promote increased education and opportunity for women to gain skills and become more competitive in the world. She showed the world that women could no longer be excluded from African politics.
She is currently serving her second term as president after winning re-election in 2011.
“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
2. President Joyce Banda of Malawi
In 2012, after the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, his vice president became the first female president of Malawi and the second female head of an African state.
As the first two female presidents of African nations, Banda and Sirleaf share a common background. Both women escaped abusive marriages and overcame single motherhood and poverty to become leaders of African nations. Both women are strong supporters of women’s rights, women’s education and reproductive rights. After taking office, Banda launched the Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood. In Liberia, Sirleaf founded the Reach Every Pregnant Woman program to ensure medical care for pregnant women.
“Most African women are taught to endure abusive marriages. They say endurance means a good wife but most women endure abusive relationship because they are not empowered economically” – Joyce Banda
3. President Catherine Samba-Panza in the Central African Republic
In January, Catherine Samba-Panza defeated seven other candidates to be elected as the Central African Republic’s (CAR) interim president. Due to months of violence and killings, the CAR has collapsed politically and economically. She has the colossal task of leading the state safely into elections next year, rebuilding the CAR’s government and economy, and repairing the hostile relationship between the Muslim Seleka fighters and the Christian anti-balaka militias.
Called “Mother Courage,” Samba-Panza continues to promote women’s rights in a country where men dominate. She cites Sirleaf as her political inspiration and vows to find a solution to her country’s problems.
“The majority of my sisters and daughters in the Central African Republic don’t know their rights so they can’t defend them. But we who know our rights can help them. We must always help them: the battle is always to promote and protect the rights of women. When they are victims of violence, notably sexual violence, in the area of my activities in civil society, it was a battle I always led.” – Catherine Samba-Panza
– Sarah Yan