Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of Liberia (2006–18)
In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia. Africa’s first elected female president, she inherited a country suffering from the after-effects of a long and violent civil war, during which rape and the use of child soldiers proliferated. In 2011, Sirleaf, who studied at Harvard, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian activist, and Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni journalist and activist, ‘for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work’. Sirleaf accepted the prize ‘On behalf of all the women of Liberia, the women of Africa, and women everywhere in the world who have struggled for peace, justice and equality’.
In her Nobel lecture, Sirleaf described her childhood in Liberia, where she was raised by her parents and her grandmothers to value a life of service. She outlined the brutal toll a country at war takes on women and called education for girls still ‘under-funded and understaffed’. ‘Yet, there is occasion for optimism and hope’, she said. ‘The windows of closed chambers where men and women have been unspeakably abused are being opened and the light is coming in.’ Referencing her co-laureates, she described ‘three women linked by their commitment to change…. The fact that we – two women from Liberia – are here today to share the stage with a sister from Yemen speaks to the universality of our struggle.’
Nobel Lecture 2011
The Nobel Committee cannot license us three Laureates to speak for women. But it has provided us a platform from which to speak to women, around the globe, whatever their nationality, their color, their religion, or their station in life. It is you, my sisters, and especially those who have seen the devastation that merciless violence can bring, to whom I dedicate my remarks, and this Prize.
There is no doubt that the madness that wrought untold destruction in recent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Rwanda, in Sierra Leone, in Sudan, in Somalia, in the former Yugoslavia, and in my own Liberia, found its expression in unprecedented levels of cruelty directed against women.
… Through the mutilation of our bodies and the destruction of our ambitions, women and girls have disproportionately paid the price of domestic and international armed conflict. We have paid in the currencies of blood, of tears, and of dignity.
Today, across the globe, women, and also men, from all walks of life are finding the courage to say, loudly and firmly, in a thousand languages, ‘No more.’ They reject mindless violence, and defend the fundamental values of democracy, of open society, of freedom, and of peace.
So I urge my sisters, and my brothers, not to be afraid. Be not afraid to denounce injustice, though you may be outnumbered. Be not afraid to seek peace, even if your voice may be small. Be not afraid to demand peace.
If I might thus speak to girls and women everywhere, I would issue them this simple invitation: My sisters, my daughters, my friends, find your voices!
The political struggles that our countries – Liberia, Yemen and others – have gone through will be meaningful only if the new-found freedom opens new opportunities for all. We are well aware that a new order, born of hunger for change, can easily fall back into the lawless ways of the past. We need our voices to be heard. Find your voice! And raise your voice! Let yours be a voice for freedom!
My sisters, my daughters, my friends, find your voices!
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf