Politics Woman of the week

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s First Female President, Former President of Liberia

August 7, 2019

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the former President of Liberia (2006-2018), and first female African head of state.

She is the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize alongside two women’s rights campaigners, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen ‘for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work’. Sirleaf was lauded for her contribution to ‘securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women.’ During her time as President, she grappled with the glaring challenges of building a country that had been ravaged by civil war, with an economy crippled by huge debts. In her unique leadership style, she sought the negotiation of settlements and lifted the sanctions restricting economic growth. Liberia also witnessed a massive revamping of major infrastructure during Sirleaf’s time as president. By executive order, she established a right to free, universal primary education, including securing a new national university. She was also seen as a strong advocate of equal rights for women.

Even though her government was criticised for cronyism and corruption, and the poor handling of the Ebola outbreak of 2014, Sirleaf continues to receive credit for her leadership, including her stepping aside after two full terms in office to allow a smooth transition in Liberia’s democratic process, with the country recording its first peaceful and democratic transition of power in 73 years. A month later, in February 2014, she was awarded the highly prestigious Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, an award set aside for democratically-elected African leaders who willingly handover power after completing their constitutionally allowed tenures.

Sirleaf is a ‘history-maker’, being the first woman to dismantle the patriarchal seat of power in Liberia. In May 2019 at the 72nd World Health Assembly, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom announced the appointment of Sirleaf as Goodwill Ambassador for the health workforce, describing her as a ‘health workforce champion, a voice for freedom and an advocate for health for all.’

Described by Forbes as the ‘83rd most powerful woman in the world’ in 2016, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is our Woman of the Week because she is a representation of leadership, democracy, and gender equality.


Academy of Achievers. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” Tue. 09 July 2019, https://www.achievement.org/achiever/ellen-johnson-sirleaf/

BBC News. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The legacy of Africa’s first elected female president.” Tue. 09 July 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-42748769

Forbes. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” Tue. 09 July 2019, https://www.forbes.com/profile/ellen-johnson-sirleaf/#52eeaddd44fb

The Nobel Prize. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” Tue. 09 July 2019, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2011/johnson_sirleaf/lecture/

The Elders. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” Tue. 09 July 2019, https://www.theelders.org/profile/ellen-johnson-sirleaf

WHO. “Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Health Workforce.” Tue. 09 July 2019, https://www.who.int/hrh/news/2019/EJS_good-will-ambassador-hwf/en/