Last January, in a dusty West African city known to most Westerners only for its grisly coups and AK-47-toting children, women's history took a giant step forward. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67-year-old former waitress, was sworn in as the president of Liberia, becoming the first female ever elected head of state in modern Africa. Liberian women had marched to the polls in unprecedented numbers to propel 'Mama Ellen' to a 60 to 40 percent victory over her opponent, former soccer star George Weah.
Liberian women aren't the only ones mobilizing across sub-Saharan Africa. In the past few years, females have ascended to heights of power unimaginable just a decade ago. In 2004, Kenya's Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 2003, Nigeria's finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has reined in corruption where her male predecessors had failed. Both Mozambique and the twin-island nation of S?o Tom? and Principe have women prime ministers, and South Africa's deputy president and health minister are both female. Rwanda's parliament is 49 percent female (a higher proportion than in any other nation in the world); Burundi's is 30 percent female; and Tanzania's recently sworn in body is made up of 30 percent women.
How much difference any of this will make is yet to be seen. Gender-specific issues such as domestic violence, polygamy, female genital mutilation, and discriminatory land-ownership and inheritance laws are likely to come under greater scrutiny, but the more significant shift may be more subtle, according to Charlotte Bunch, founding executive director of the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Center for Women's Global Leadership. Women tend to make the biggest impact, she says, in the areas of social cohesion and infrastructure. 'They tend to pay more attention to the things that keep people's daily lives together -- to the water pump instead of the trucks to go to market.'
The generation of women currently coming to power in Africa, says Bunch, is likely to follow this paradigm, given the armed conflicts so many of them have experienced firsthand. 'Really trying to think about peace and security,' she says, 'tends to call upon the best of the traits that women have traditionally exhibited.' (Traits, she emphasizes, that have less to do with biology than with women's role in society, which has generally been 'to bring people together and to move communities forward.')
Given her history -- a widowed mother of four, she spent a year in prison under former dictator Samuel Doe-Johnson-Sirleaf can't help but approach her job from a new perspective, says Morris Dukuly, a spokesman for the new president.
Pledging to 'do away with the imperial presidency,' as Dukuly puts it, and to stamp out corruption, rebuild her country, and reconcile its people after the 14-year civil war that killed nearly a quarter of a million, the Harvard-educated leader has put education at the forefront of her mandate. And this is paramount, says Tshiya Subayi, a Washington-based health official for the World Bank. When women are educated, she explains, they gain the tools to assert themselves on everything from demanding property rights to insisting that their partners use condoms.
Wangari Maathai, whose work with the Green Belt Movement has focused on the connection between environmental stewardship and peace, is hopeful that the new emphasis will extend to education about the land. After all, she says, 'it's women who are the first victims of environmental degradation.' She is also looking to Africa's new leaders to provide 'government that is devoid of corruption and greed for power,' and to address issues, like the alleviation of poverty, that have gotten short shrift in the past. 'We really have to right that history,' says Maathai, 'to demonstrate that we are different, so that in the future we can say that when women have assumed power, things have changed.'
In fact, there is already evidence of progress. In November, the women of Kenya played an instrumental role in voting down a draft constitution they deemed too vague in its time frame and specifics for reform; far more significantly, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa went into effect that same month, after ratification by 15 countries. Beyond providing a comprehensive legal framework for women's human rights, the protocol guarantees a wide range of gender-specific civil, political, economic, social, and cultural freedoms.
The biggest challenge now, says Bunch, may be overcoming unrealistic expectations. 'When you get new political actors in power,' she says, 'the problems are still fundamental and structural, and the amount of space to bring change can sometimes be disappointing to people. The fact that you have a woman leader doesn't mean she's going to be able to solve everything right away.'
Given the length of time they've been suffering, the women of Africa may not mind a little wait.