Joan Holmes, 2006 Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger
Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight, we welcome and honor the President of the Republic of Liberia, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Liberia is a country of 3.3 million people on Africa’s West Coast.
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 Sirleaf.
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 great-granddaughter.
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 safe.
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 lives.
We were discriminated against and treated as second class citizens. We were seen as inferior, just because we were women.
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 that impossible.
I did go to school for a few hours a day for a couple of years, but it just never seemed important to educate a girl.
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 mutilation.
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 a failure.
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 could happen.
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 Johnson Sirleaf!”
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 Union.
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.