Profiles in History: Wangaari Mathaai and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Both Wangaari Mathaai and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf are more recent figures in history-~-in fact, Johnson Sirleaf  is still alive and presently serving as president of Liberia, and Mathaai passed away in 2011.  But both of these women represent important strides in African feminism, as well as the efforts for peace, sustainability, and development in Africa.  Both of these incredible women were awarded Nobel Peace Prizes, and are more than deserving of recognition for their contributions.

Wangaari Mathaai (Kenya) was in fact the FIRST African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, back in 2004.  She was given this honor in recognition of “her contributions to sustainable development, democracy, and peace”.  Mathaai founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organization in Kenya that focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights.  Born of the ecofeminist movement, this organization did incredible work utilizing tree planting as a means to achieve poverty reduction and women’s empowerment.

Before she even won the Nobel Prize, however, Mathaai had some pretty notable accomplishments.  She was the first woman in Eastern or Central Africa to be awarded a PhD, and she sat  on the National Council for Women in Kenya for several years, serving as its chair from 1981-1987.  It was her work with the Council that eventually led her to form the Green Belt Movement, and it was also an important intro to her work with the Kenyan government.  She went on to serve in Kenya’s parliament from 2002-2007, and held the position of Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources from 2003-2007.  In 2006, she cofounded the Nobel Women’s Initiative and in 2009 was named a UN Messenger for Peace.

Basically, she was awesome.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) has actually been honored on this blog before, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, but I think she deserves to be talked about a little more.  She was (is?) the first elected woman president of an African country, winning election in 2005 and re-election in 2011.  Prior to winning the presidency, she served as the country’s Minister for Finance.  She was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 2011 with  Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen-~-the Nobel committee stated that they were being recognized for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency has evidenced remarkable leadership.  In 2006, she created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help her country heal after almost 20 years of conflict.  She originally aimed to appoint an all-female cabinet but ultimately could not find qualified candidates for every post; that said, she appointed a number of women to her cabinet and continues to support women leaders in Liberia.  She has also done significant work on debt reduction to try to assist her country’s development.

I would list all of the awards she has won, but there are just an absurd number, so I am going to refer you to her Wikipedia page here.  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf continues to serve as President of Liberia today, and is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders.

For a longer list of amazing African feminists, please click here.


~ by Randi Saunders on March 22, 2013.

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