African women have been making strides on the world stage attaining many firsts and breaking glass ceilings along the way such as addressing the UN General Assembly even though it certainly was a long time coming.
The first time an African woman leader addressed the assembly was in 2006 although many African countries joined the UN in the 1960s.
The first African female Head of State, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, paved the way for others. Before her historic address at the UN General Assembly, only male African heads of states had addressed the General Assembly. There have been three others to follow in her stead with the most recent one in 2019.
Here is a list of the leading African women forging a path for future generations on the global stage.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first African female Head of State in 2005 and the first female president in all of Africa.
She was the first democratically elected president following 14 years of a deadly civil war during the reign of the now incarcerated former President Charles Taylor, who was ousted by rebels in 2003.
Sirleaf was the first African woman leader to address the UN General Assembly in 2006 and requested that she not be the last. She stated that “the next generation must belong to women.” She also mentioned the fact that Liberia was stable and peaceful following the war, and was taking steps to fix the country’s infrastructure problems.
As an ardent advocate for democracy, Sirleaf was the first woman to run the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Africa in 1992.
In 2007, she was presented with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award. She also received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, awarded jointly with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”, said the citation.
The Liberian economy thrived under Sirleaf and her administration found success in negotiating for debt relief from international creditors.
Joyce Hilda Banda of Malawi
Malawi’s Joyce Banda became Africa’s second woman president in 2012 after President Bingu wa Mutharika died that same year. Banda had been President Mutharika’s running mate on the ticket of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a center-right liberal party, in Malawi’s 2009 presidential election.
The DPP government was not interested in allowing Banda to take over the reins of the country despite the Malawian constitution clearly giving her the mandate.
She is hailed for her commitment to women’s rights touching mostly on maternal health and reproductive rights. She is also the founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation International, which supports marginalized women and girls in Malawi.
She is the second African woman leader to address the UN General Assembly in 2013 and her speech centered on how her reforms had helped stabilize the economy of Malawi.
She also made mention of how she intended on achieving the then Millennium Development Goals, with emphasis on reducing child mortality, HIV/AIDS cases, and malaria. She further highlighted ways to sustain the environment and forge better global partnerships.
Catherine Samba-Panza of Central African Republic
Catherine Samba-Panza had to take on the herculean task of leading the people of the Central African Republic (CAR) while there were ongoing negotiations to release children who have been made to take part in war activities. She was installed the interim president from 2014-2016 deserting her position as a nonpartisan mayor of Bangui.
President Michel Djotodia resigned and the newly installed Samba-Panza quickly dived into pending issues revolving around the civil war then.
As an ardent listener, she used her negotiating skills to regrow the state economy and restore state authority in her short tenure. Civilian lives were her priority and she worked assiduously to disarm and demobilize armed groups.
Samba-Panza addressed the UN General Assembly in 2014 and spoke passionately about the measures on grounds to reduce the rising tensions in CAR. She praised the UN for deploying the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) under the authority of the UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2149.
“In order to promote political dialogue and national reconciliation and help Central Africans to live better with one another, I have always focused on pacifying hearts and minds so as to achieve genuine national reconciliation,”. Samba-Panza said during her speech.
Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s parliament elected Sahle-Work Zewde to be the country’s first female president following the resignation of President Mulatu Teshome in 2018 and she is currently the only serving female head of state in Africa.
She is the most recent female head of state to address the UN General Assembly representing the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the 2019 UN General Debate. She touched on measures being put in place for a long and flourishing democracy.
“We have enlarged the political space, releasing jailed political prisoners and journalists; inviting exiled political parties to return home and pursue their peaceful struggle; revising electoral, counter-terrorism and civil society laws; and ending the 20-year conflict with Eritrea,” Zewde said.
Zewde has served for a long time in the world of diplomacy representing Ethiopia in many African countries. She is known for bridging gender gaps and has been praised for her works with UN peacekeeping troops not forgetting her efforts to get more women involved in peacekeeping missions.
Zewd is the second woman to hold an Ambassadorial position in the history of Ethiopia and has served in French-speaking African countries like Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea, and Djibouti, as well as France.