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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf breaks Political Glass Ceiling for African Women

In her first speech as the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf put her desire in simple terms: to "empower Liberian women in all areas of our national life.” She would do this from a position that no women ever held in the continent of Africa. Johnson Sirleaf became the president of Liberia in 2005, the first woman to ever do so in Africa. Her achieving history is a testament to her determination and resilience.

Johnson Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia. She attended the College of West Africa, a Methodist high school in Monrovia, Liberia before moving to America to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in accounting at the University of Wisconsin. Johnson Sirleaf then went on to graduate from Harvard university before returning to Liberal as the assistant Minister of Finance and then Minister of Finance a few years later. Five years after her appointment she would kick off her first presidential campaign and was elected president almost a decade later.

However, Johnson Sirleaf’s educational and political rise was not without difficulty. When she became president, she took control of a country that was devastated by war, short on food and drowning in waste, and lacking in educational infrastructure and hope. Yet, the “Iron Lady” showed the resolve that earned her that nickname and the top position in Liberia’s male dominated government. By introducing free schools, she increased enrollment among youth by 40%; through wise business decisions, she lifted the country out of debt; and has brought peace to the country through the creation of institutions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia.

Johnson Sirleaf’s efforts have earned her some much deserved recognition. In 2011 she won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2016 was chosen as the 83rd most powerful women in the world. However, her power does not come from awards. Her power comes from the message that she has sent to young girls: that where there’s a will, there’s a way. In an interview when asked about the pressure of being a woman in her position, Johnson Sirleaf’s mentioned she embraces it. She understands that her story is inspiration for the next generation of leaders as it represents “the expectations and aspirations of African women and maybe women elsewhere.”

Hazim Hardeman is a graduate student at Oxford University, where he will pursue a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Economic and Social History. He is also African Community Learning Program's intern for the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.

Aminata Sy is the founder and president of African Community Learning Program, a multimedia journalist, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies international relations and English. She is also the founder, editor, and publisher of the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.

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