President Ellen Johnson has been awarded the 2011 African Gender Award at a ceremony held Saturday night in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and witnessed by more than a thousand guests, including some of the most influential women on the African continent.
Speaking at the occasion, the President said she was deeply honored to follow four other African Presidents in receiving the African Gender Award from the hands of women of the continent. The President dedicated the Award to the women of Liberia, whom she described as the nation's cornerstone.
“There is no greater honor than one that comes when you are selected by your peers. I accept this honor on behalf of the people of Liberia, especially the women of that country,” President Sirleaf told the gathering.
Reflecting on her achievements, the President said she had become what she is because of the women of Liberia. She was now reciprocating that support by encouraging Liberian women to take advantage of adult literacy programs in the country, to improve their standing in reading and writing and thereby enable them conduct their business effectively.
The President frowned on early marriages in Liberia and the bearing of children at an early age, practices she attributed to the slow progress in the development of women, coupled with age-old perceptions in Liberian society that it was “good for the woman to stay in the background and take care of the children and home, while the men go out to provide for the family.”
Despite the shortcomings, the President said she was confident that women in Liberia are being empowered “to the point where whenever I take tours of the country, rural women come to me to say, ‘we want to say thank God for you becoming President; for coming in our towns, calling meetings to give some of us the courage to come, sit and discuss with our male counterparts about which kinds of development we want in our areas. It wasn't like this in the past because in the past; we were always kept in the background.”
Despite the long years of marginalization of Liberian woman, the President pointed out that the 14-year civil conflict had a huge toll on the women. While various maltreatments were meted out against them, including rape and child mortality due to the lack of drugs, women became breadwinners for their families while most men were fighting.
At the event, a video documentary produced by the Department of Public Affairs at the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs was screened, depicting the rapid transformation since the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf more than five years ago.
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, one of four previous recipients of the Award, praised the Liberian President for her performance and achievements. “You have brought honor to all African women. You have taken guns and bombs from the hands of the children of Liberia, replacing them with computers, schools, pencils, ink pens, colleges and universities.”
Also speaking, Madam Gertrude Mongella, the first President of the Pan-African Parliament and a long-time advocate for African women, said the sounds of guns and bombs on the African continent was now enough, and women there should now be given the chance to put their energies into practice. “This is why we are celebrating the selection of a great woman like President Sirleaf of Liberia.”
Four African leaders have been recipients of the African Gender Award since it was launched in 2005: President Wade of Senegal; South African President Thabo Mbeki; President Paul Kagame of Rwanda; and President Armando E. Guebuzo of Mozambique.
Two other Liberian women were honored: Ms. Kula Fofana of Paramount Young Women Initiative, for promoting programs aimed at improving the welfare of young girls; and Mrs. Eda Henries Toussaint, General Manager of PA's Rib House in Monrovia, for promoting private sector development through personal initiatives.
The African Gender Award acknowledges and rewards an African leader and his/her country for having brought extraordinary input in gender mainstreaming, according to the principles defined by the Solemn Declaration on Equality between Men and Women (SDGEA) adopted by the Heads of State and Government Assembly at the African Union's Third Ordinary Session, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July 2004.
The President was accompanied by Dr. Edward B. McClain, Jr., Minister of State for Presidential Affairs/chief of Staff; Youth & Sports Minister Etmonia David-Tarpeh: Gender & Development Minister Varbah Gayflor; Cllr. Yvette Chesson-Wureh, Establishment Coordinator of the Angie Brooks International Center; and other Executive Mansion staff.
The President and delegation returned to the country Saturday afternoon