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Radio News Bulletin
Africa's Nobel women
13 October 2011, 12:56 PM | Source: Santilla Chingaipe, SBS
The similarities between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, peace activist and compatriot Leymah Gbowee and Kenyan Wangari Maathai are strikingly close, and go well beyond their penchant for head wraps and traditional African attire.
They were all born into poverty.
Wangari Maathai was born in the central highlands of Kenya during a time when Kenyan girls were not educated. At the suggestion of her brother, she enrolled into primary school at the age of eight and carried on learning, later becoming the first woman in East Africa to hold a doctorate after completing her studies at the University of Kenya.
As Kenya became independent she worked hard against traditional beliefs like tribalism and sexual discrimination. She became active in many humanitarian and environmental organisations in Kenya, speaking to rural women about the deteriorating environment and social problems affecting them.
She formed the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s, an organisation that according to the UN has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and helped nearly 900,000 women across the continent.
Professor Maathai became the symbol of Kenyan women’s, and indeed African women’s, struggle against the patriarch. In her autobiography, Unbowed, she wrote of the pain she felt after coming home one day to find her husband gone. Her husband filed for divorce saying she was ‘too strong minded for a woman’ and he was ‘unable to control her’.
Their work has crossed into the political.
President Sirleaf has long been known as an advocate for ending gender-based violence in Africa, following her divorce at the age of 17 from an abusive husband. Affectionately known as the ‘Iron Lady’ she is a graduate of Harvard University and worked at both the World Bank and the United Nations.
She became Africa’s first female elected president in 2005 following the end of Liberia’s deadly civil war.
Ms Johnson-Sirleaf was a finance minister before she fled Liberia in the 1980s due to a military coup. Upon returning to Liberia, she stood for presidency only to lose to Charles Taylor – who is currently on trial for war crimes in the Hague -- and returned to exile after being charged with treason.
She has advocated for women to take on leadership roles, which remain male dominated in Africa. According to the BBC, during an election campaign she has said that if she won, it would encourage women across Africa to seek high political office.
She is currently seeking re-election after Liberia went to the polls on Tuesday.
All three women believed that women could bring about the change their countries, and Africa, needs.
Leymah Gbowee, was 17 when war first broke out in 1989 after Charles Taylor led an uprising to topple president Samuel Doe. She had just left high school and planned to study medicine. In 2003, after more than 200,000 people had died, many of them children, and countless women had been raped, she led women in prayer and protest to bring an end to conflict.
According to her autobiography co-author Carol Mithers, President Charles Taylor had forbidden public opposition to his policies. The men of Liberia, even those who wanted the war to end, were doing nothing and Ms Gbowee believed it would be up to the country's women to bring peace.
On April 14, 2003, thousands of women, from various ethnic and religious divides, dressed in white gathered in a field along the capital of Monrovia's central road and refused to leave. The tactics they used to push the men towards peace talks included refusing to have sex with their husbands until the war was brought to an end.
It has been widely reported that without Ms Gbowee’s organised protests, the conflict would not have ended as it did.
These women perhaps represent the changing face of Africa. More and more women are taking it upon themselves to change their lives and that of their families, in spite of the many barriers that still need to be overcome. These three women serve as an example to the rest of the continent that change can happen. And all it takes is one person to stand up.
Professor Maathai once said she would always be a hummingbird. The video is worth watching as it serves to remind us all that no matter where we come from and who we are, we should strive to do the best we can.