By Elizabeth Ash| The Hoya|
Democracies function best when they maximize female political participation, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said during her talk in Copley Formal Lounge on Wednesday afternoon.
The first democratically elected female head of state in Africa, Sirleaf received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to secure women’s rights and increase their political participation. Through her advocacy work, she witnessed the positive impact female participation in politics can have on democracies, she told the audience.
The Liberian president said Democracy was the ultimate standard to strive for in her Copley Formal address.
“Success without democracy is improbable, and democracy without women is impossible,” Sirleaf said, quoting a sentiment famously expressed by Georgetown professor and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “We hold it to be true that democracies function best when they are truly representative and inclusive.
Since being elected president 2005, Sirleaf has helped Liberia recover from its 14-year civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003 and killed around 250,000 people. She also helped lead recovery efforts after the Ebola crisis in 2014.
Sirleaf said she is proud that her leadership serves as an example for girls and women, and she noted that greater female political participation across different fields is crucial to helping combat marginalization of all groups of women.
“I’m glad that a little girl can challenge her marginalization, pointing out that a woman is president,” Sirleaf said. “We must reach beyond counting and analyzing the few women at the highest level of politics and transition into building and sustaining a well-resourced horizontal bench for the next generation of leaders.”
While praising female leaders’ recent progress, Sirleaf questioned whether the current efforts are sustainable. She cautioned that policy changes alone will not fix the disparities in representation.
“It is becoming increasingly evident that top-down, legal and constitutional changes will be insufficient on their own in the long run to bring the equality that women seek,” Sirleaf said. “Statistics can paint an incomplete picture, leading us to believe that we should conceptualize political leaderships in vertical manner, as a ladder that men and women ascend.”
Sirleaf opened her speech by addressing the recent Liberian presidential elections, held Oct. 10. No candidate won the 50 percent of votes that are required for victory, prompting the Supreme Court to postpone the Nov. 7 runoff election between Vice President Joseph Boakai and former soccer star George Weah. This decision came after third-place finisher Charles Brumskine complained of irregularities and fraud in the election.
Sirleaf said that when she became president in 2005, she hoped that presidential authority would be transferred democratically during the 2017 election. Although the election was not a perfect example of a democratic transfer of power, she said that post-conflict recovery takes time.
“I accepted this invitation months ago, believing that Liberia’s historic 2017 election — an event marking the first time since 1944 that presidential authority would be transferred democratically from one leader to another — we assumed it would have been completed. It has not. In fact, it has become more complicated, but that is the nature of a post-conflict democracy,” Sirleaf said.
Regardless of which candidate wins, Sirleaf said she is proud of Liberia’s transformation under her leadership.
“In a few weeks, I will hand over leadership to another democratically elected president, which for Liberia, will be the first time in 74 years,” Sirleaf said. “I will leave behind a nation transformed from despair to hope; from a destroyed nation to one with a functional government and an open, democratic society; from a pariah state to a post-conflict success story.”
Democracy can be messy and unpredictable, Sirleaf concluded, pointing to challenges in Liberia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and the United States as examples. Despite its challenges — especially in post-conflict states — democracy still surpasses all other systems of government, she said, making her proud of her efforts to work toward democracy.
“It is clear that the ballot box has replaced bullets, and electoral disputes are settled through the courts. I take pride as a woman that this transformation has taken place under my leadership,” Sirleaf said.