Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight, we welcome and honor the
President of the Republic of Liberia, Her Excellency Ellen
Liberia is a country of 3.3 million people on Africa’s
From 1989 to 2003, civil war devastated the country. Thousands
of men, women and children were victims of murder, abduction,
torture, forced labor, displacement, sexual assault and
rape. Children as young as nine were forced to become
soldiers. The country’s infrastructure was completely
destroyed. Corruption was widespread. Life expectancy
dropped to less than 40 years.
Can you possibly imagine the courage, the vision, the
belief in the goodness and resilience of people it would
take to lead a country following such devastation?
The Hunger Project awards the Africa Prize for Leadership
for the Sustainable End of Hunger to leaders who exhibit
exceptional courage, vision, and commitment to the well-being
of their people.
Ladies and Gentlemen, later this evening we will award
the Africa Prize for Leadership to Africa’s first
elected woman president—Her Excellency Ellen Johnson
Break with Protocol
Ladies and Gentleman, with your permission, this evening,
I’d like to break with protocol. Instead of a formal
speech, I’d like to read to you from a letter.
Now this is a letter written in the future, on a date
yet to be determined. It’s a letter written by a
great-grandmother on the occasion of the birth of her
My Darling Baby Girl,
Welcome to our family. Welcome to Africa and to the world.
We are so thrilled you have arrived. Our family loves
and values you and we pledge to protect you and keep you
I know that you will learn the history of our people in
school, but I also know, that often, history only records
what happens for boys and men.
With this letter, I write a history to let you know that
the lives of girls and women are worthy of being recorded.
Let me start our history with one of the greatest achievements
on the African continent. In the latter half of the 20th
century, every country in Africa had attained independence.
And so, the countries in Africa were now liberated and
free to chart their own future. But, while the African
countries were liberated, we girls and women were not.
And for years and years we lived oppressed and constricted
We were discriminated against and treated as second class
citizens. We were seen as inferior, just because we were
Someday you will understand that the history of Africa
is written from various points of view, but the one I’m
writing from today is to tell you that gender inequality
permeated Africa. It not only caused great personal anguish,
but it resulted in widespread hunger and poverty; it fueled
a pandemic of one of the worst diseases known to humankind;
and it allowed for unchecked war, conflict and violence.
Life in Rural Africa for a Woman
Our family has always lived in rural Africa where the
majority of Africans live. Even as children, all of my
sisters and I worked. In fact, we really didn’t
have a childhood.
I was the oldest, so it was left to me to take care of
my younger sisters and brothers. This started when I was
about 6 or 7 years old. I would often go with my mother
to gather firewood. We walked for miles and miles everyday.
I learned early how to carry heavy loads on my head.
Later, I went with my mother to fetch water and again
walked miles and miles with heavy jugs on my head. We
never thought anything about it. This was all we knew.
And when I was just a few years older I started working
on the family farm. And, this is the work that I continued
to do as I grew older and after I got married.
Like all rural African women, I lived a life of drudgery
and back breaking work. And the worst part—there
was no relief. No pause. It just continued—day after
day after day.
It was only much later in life that I learned that we,
the women of Africa, produced 80% of the continent’s
food and provided virtually all of the wood, fuel and
water for the rural population.
We had no idea that we were meeting the basic needs of
an entire continent. I wish we had known that, so at least
we could have had some sense of pride in our efforts.
My mother tried to send us to school, but the work on
the farm; gathering the firewood and water; caring for
my siblings; and, caring for the sick and dying just made
I did go to school for a few hours a day for a couple
of years, but it just never seemed important to educate
Even though women produced most of the food, no one supported
us—not our husbands; not the banks; and certainly
not the government.
We had no credit to improve our farms because banks wouldn’t
loan money to women. And the government extension services
were rarely available. We weren’t even allowed to
own our own land.
And so—by the end of the 20th century—Africa
was the only region of the world to have a decrease in
food production and an increase in the number of people
hungry and living in abject poverty.
HIV/AIDS in Africa
Another condition that plagued our continent in the latter
part of the 20th century was HIV/AIDS.
People from all over the world suffered from the disease,
but here in Africa, it was pandemic. By the turn of the
century, 25 million African people were infected and 17
million had already died of the disease.
Once again, women paid the highest price. Africa was the
only region where more women were infected than men. And
we were infected by the millions—mostly by a loved
one at home or by rape as a consequence of war or violence.
The truth was, in Sub-Saharan Africa, gender inequality
fueled the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS. As women we were
at special risk because we lacked the power to determine
if, how, when, where—and all too often—with
whom sex took place.
You see, gender inequality kept us uninformed about prevention
and powerless to protect ourselves. We were last in line
for care and life saving treatment—and—it
imposed an overwhelming burden on us to care for the sick
and dying. The disease was devastating. Not just for us
as individuals and families, but for all of Africa.
We lost our most productive people. We lost teachers,
and nurses, and farmers. And we lost parents. Countless
numbers of children became orphans.
It became clear after millions and millions of African
men and women died that unless we had a vaccine or until
the rights of women became paramount in this struggle,
the pandemic would persist.
My dear baby girl, it is painful for me to write of this
bleak time. And yet having lived through this experience
I could not keep silent. I need this history to be heard
and I need it to be heard by you. And so I continue.
War, Conflict and Violence
The third condition that dominated Africa during the latter
part of the 20th century was war. War, conflict and violence—particularly
against women and girls
There were more than 30 wars. Two countries endured the
tragedy of genocide. Over 11 million people were killed—millions
more were injured and displaced—and violence against
women and girls reached epidemic proportions.
And, although women suffered the tragic consequences of
war, they had no voice—no voice in the policies
that resulted in war and no voice in the policies that
had war continue.
While it is true that violence against women and girls
increased during wartime, violence also was ever-present
for women in times of peace—and it went largely
unpunished. In that way, violence against women became
the accepted norm.
Rape was endemic. It was an ever constant threat. And,
domestic violence was an everyday occurrence. We were
unsafe in school, walking down a village road, or going
to the market. And your home was no refuge.
Millions and millions of girls suffered female genital
But for me, the greatest indignity—we women were
held in such disregard that while giving birth to the
next generation, 1 in 16 of us died.
By the turn of the century, the experiment to try to build
healthy, prosperous, peaceful societies while subjugating
one half of the population was increasingly seen to be
Billions and billions of dollars poured into Africa, but
still the majority of us were worse off than we were at
the beginning of independence. Later I learned that during
this time, 75% of Africans were living on less than $2
a day. We didn’t even have enough food to feed our
children. That was the worst part.
This was a dark time. A very dark time. But even then
there was the beginning of transformation.
The international community recognized women’s leadership
in Africa by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari
Maathai—an environmentalist from Kenya.
And, laws were passed to criminalize female genital mutilation.
In 2004, the African Union adopted the Solemn Declaration
on Gender Equality in Africa. This declaration reaffirmed
the rights of women and pledged the protection of women
against violence and discrimination.
And, in Rwanda, a country that had endured genocide, the
survivors came to the realization that having more women
in power could have prevented it. They then elected more
women to parliament than any other country in the world—49%!
But, from my point of view, the one event that ignited
a continent-wide transformation was the election of the
first woman president in the history of Africa.
My dear little one, we couldn’t believe it…a
woman president? In Africa?! We had never thought this
When she became president, we started to see a new possibility
for ourselves. We felt that for the very first time in
our lives that we had a voice—that we were worthy…we
felt that we mattered. This awakening started slowly,
but over time it gained momentum.
As women farmers became literate, they began to have a
whole new sense of themselves. They ran for office and
were elected to local government. And, by doing that they
were saying: “I too am Ellen Johnson Sirleaf!”
Women—both in East and West Africa—transcended
cultural, ethnic and political differences; they bonded;
they demanded a seat at the negotiating table, and they
pushed for peace and resolution to war. In finding their
voice they said: “I too am Ellen Johnson Sirleaf!”
In Kenya, Maasai girls battled to remain students and
not become child brides. They had to fight their families
and their community for the right to stay in school and
be educated. And, in their bravery said: “I am Ellen
One woman broke with the culturally accepted tradition
of domestic violence by taking her husband to court. The
trial caused a sensation because her husband was found
guilty. That woman—taking that courageous action—was
saying: “I am Ellen Johnson Sirleaf!”
When more than 1,000 women marched to the office of their
Prime Minister and to their parliament and demanded more
police protection from violence and demanded harsher sentences
for the offenders—that day—they broke the
conspiracy of silence. A silence that shrouded violence
against women and—that day—in their solidarity
they said: “I am Ellen Johnson Sirleaf!”
At a certain point the transformation became irreversible—unstoppable.
The status of women food farmers improved. They got training,
credit, improved seeds and appropriate tools. More of
our girls were in school. Girls and women had better health
care. And the laws to protect us began to be enforced.
And, every year, more and more women were elected to village
councils, to parliaments, and appointed to the African
Almost immediately we began to see the results. Women
were growing more food. Fewer of us died in childbirth.
Our families were healthier. Our children stayed alive
and were better nourished.
Africa was living the truth—that when women are
empowered—that is when the shackles and constraints
are removed from their lives—all of society benefits.
My Dear Baby Girl, you come from a very long line of brave,
courageous and powerful African women. I pray that you
join the legions of your sisters—and a growing number
of your brothers—in Africa and around the world.
Individuals who are committed to having all people—girls
and boys, women and men—all people—live lives
of equality, self-reliance and dignity.
2006 by The Perspective
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