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Women and World Power
June 19, 2009

Last year, for the first time, many Americans wondered if the country "was ready" to elect a woman president — a question already answered in many nations. The UN, which tracks women in elected positions globally, notes that in 2008 there were more women in politics than ever, accounting for 18.4% of parliament members worldwide. There are highly visible women leaders dotting the globe — in Ireland, Bangladesh, Chile, Germany, Argentina and Liberia. But the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) notes that "even at the current rate of increase, developing countries will not reach the 'parity zone' where neither sex holds more than 60% of seats until 2045."

UNIFEM also tracks less easily quantified measures of women in decision-making positions: women's ability to require government accountability, access to basic human rights, freedom from violence and sexual extortion, women's pay equity and place in business management positions, among many others. UNIFEM's 2009 interactive report "Progress of the World's Women" is a comprehensive guide and organized by country and topic.

Study the map above in detail. It includes women in parliaments, heads of state and those in ministerial positions. (PDF)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938. She attended high school at the College of West Africa. After marrying James Sirleaf, she traveled to the U.S. to study. Johnson Sirleaf received a B.A. in accounting from the University of Wisconsin in 1964, a diploma at the University of Colorado in economics and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1971.

After Harvard, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia and became the assistant minister of finance in William Tolbert's administration. In 1979, she became the first female minister of finance. In 1980 she was one of a few officials to avoid death when a firing squad killed 13 Liberian cabinet ministers. In 1980, Samuel Doe assumed power in the country following a military coup. Johnson Sirleaf went into exile to Kenya, where she worked in the Nairobi office of Citibank.

In 1985, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for the Senate. She was briefly imprisoned for criticizing the Doe regime and initially supported rebel leader Charles Taylor. During 1989 to 1996, when Liberia was entrenched in a civil war, Johnson Sirleaf lived in Washington, D.C. and worked as an economist for the World Bank and as the director of the United Nations Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa.

Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1996 and ran against Charles Taylor in the 1997 presidential election under the Unity Party, coming in a distant second. Taylor charged her with treason. She campaigned for his removal from office, serving as the head of the Governance Reform Commission and assuming a leadership role in the transitional government after the second Liberian civil war ended in 2003.

In 2003 when Charles Taylor was exiled to Nigeria and the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) was formed, Sirleaf was selected to serve as Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission where she led the country's anti-corruption reform by changing the reporting mechanism of the General Auditing Commission from the Executive to the Legislature thereby strengthening and reinforcing its independence. She left this position to successfully contest the 2005 Presidential elections resulting in her historical inauguration on January 16, 2006, as President of Liberia. (SOURCE: IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA and Liberian Executive Mansion)

Photo Credit: Eric Kanalstein/UNMIL

Related Media:
FBI Congo messengerWomen, War & Peace
PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL will be shown in its entirety as part PBS's WIDE ANGLE's Women, War & Peace series. The four-part series will focus on women's strategic role in the post-Cold War era, where globalization, arms trafficking, and illicit trade have intersected to create a whole new type of war. On the WIDE ANGLE site you can view an interview with producers Abigal Disney and Gini Reticker.

In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated Liberia's first elected female president and Africa's first freely elected female head of state. Johnson Sirleaf has appointed an unprecedented number of women to leadership positions in all areas in the Liberian government. With the exclusive cooperation of President Sirleaf, IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA goes behind the scenes of this groundbreaking administration during its first year, as it works to prevent a post-conflict nation from returning to civil war. You can watch the film on YouTube.

FBI Congo messengerNOW: Women, Power and Politics
NOW's Maria Hinojosa talks to women leaders around the world and in the United States for an intimate look at the high-stakes risks, triumphs, and setbacks for women leaders of today and tomorrow. (September 19, 2008)

References and Reading:
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

BBC NEWS: Profile: Liberia’s “Iron Lady”

Profile of Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Government of the Republic of Liberia, Executive Mansion

Read the first chapter of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's 2009 autobiography: THIS CHILD WILL BE GREAT

UNIFEM's 2009 interactive report "Progress of the World's Women"

International Museum of Women (IWM)
The IWM strives to amplify the voices of women worldwide through global online exhibitions, history, the arts and cultural programs.

Also This Week:

The JOURNAL profiles Leymah Gbowee, a woman who led her fellow countrywomen to fight for and win peace in war-torn Liberia, and Abigail Disney, who produced the documentary of their struggle and triumph in the award-winning film PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL.

From the arrival of freed U.S. slaves through civil war and beyond.

View a photo essay of women's peace movements around the globe.

Where do women stand in terms of political power? And, find out more about Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

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