Africa’s Iron Lady 

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, came to Perry World House as part of the Global Order Colloquium.

Former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sits on a stage with NPR reporter Deborah Amos, with rows of onlookers in chairs and a sign behind them reading Perry World House
Former President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (left) speaks with National Public Radio international correspondent Deborah Amos at Perry World House on Sept. 28. 2021. (Image: Courtesy Amy Guo of Penn Lens)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, often called “Africa’s Iron Lady,” has been working her entire life for a peaceful, just, and healthy future. As president of Liberia and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Sirleaf became a voice for freedom in her home country and around the world. Now, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she is fighting for a brighter future once again, as the co-chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response.

Sirleaf came to Perry World House to discuss how to prepare for the next pandemic, her vision for advancing democracy, battling vaccine hesitancy and the ongoing issue of women’s equity around the globe. She is a Distinguished Global Leader-in-Residence at Perry World House this year.

The event was part of Perry World House’s 2021 Global Order Colloquium “How to See the Future, Forecasting and Global Policy.” The two-day colloquium also featured two virtual events: a conversation on forecasting and the U.S. intelligence community between PWH Director Michael C. Horowitz and Morgan Muir, the U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration, and a chat with former U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, moderated by The Wall Street Journal’s Vivian Salama.

PWH also hosted workshops during the two days, focusing on global health, the global economy, and national security.

Sirleaf was introduced by Penn Nursing Dean Antonia M. Villarruel.

“Few have better insights on pandemic response and preparedness through her leadership of Liberia through the Ebola crisis,” Villarruel said.

She told the audience that before the event she asked Sirleaf if this was her first time in Philadelphia.

“She remarked that she had been here before, but the last visit and speech she gave resulted in her being imprisoned back in Liberia,” Villarruel said, adding she hopes Sirleaf gets a better welcome at home this time around.

Former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks at a podium with a sign reading Perry World House behind her
Former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke about topics ranging from vaccine hesitancy to women’s equity challenges. (Image: Courtesy Amy Guo of Penn Lens)

Sirleaf opened by noting the connections between Penn and West Africa before the event transitioned to a conversation with National Public Radio international correspondent Deborah Amos.

“This university’s influence reaches the distant shores of West Africa,” Sirleaf said. “Many of those who have come here to obtain their education and their professional skills have gone back and are rendering public and professional service well appreciated in our countries. And so, to the professors here, we urge you to continue to be the open house that you are to train those coming from different lands to enable them to go back and serve their countries.”

She also spoke of the effects of COVID-19 on the global community, as well as the need for vaccine and gender equity.

“Scientists and researchers have done their job in producing vaccines, but now we face the issue of vaccine equity. When a disease is as widespread as this, affecting people with no means to respond, nobody is safe until everyone is safe,” she said.

Ideally technology should be shared with the countries of the Global South so they can manufacture vaccines themselves and get them to their populations.

“We need resilient global health systems; that’s the real answer,” she said. “The vaccine cannot provide sustainability in health care.”

She noted the lack of women leaders around the globe and shared her own story, as well as pointing out women leaders that inspire her: Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, and Winnie Mandela. She told the audience it was up to them to do what they must to make equity for women a reality.

“You are the next generation. All that we’ve talked about will be your responsibility. You will guide the destiny of the world. What you learn here will help, but after you get there how will you use the talent you got here? How will you position yourself towards a goal?” she said. “I’m now approaching my 83rd birthday. We must pass the torch on to you, young people, to have unwavering courage to make the world a better place, with equity for everyone.”

Asked by Amos about vaccine hesitancy in Africa, Sirleaf mentioned how leading by example is key and referenced Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, who was a COVID-19 skeptic and died of the virus in March. The vice president who took over for him has since changed the nation’s COVID-19 policies and vaccine awareness.

“You have to have a program of convincing the population, telling them the effects, telling them the results of inaction on their part,” she said, noting that giving credible information about vaccines to the public is crucial. “Because the normal thing is to think that it will not happen to you, that you can be safe, that you don’t need it and for those who distrust the government; they may think this is something to harm them. It’s difficult.”

Before turning questions over to the in-person audience, Amos asked Sirleaf what kept her going during challenging times.

“I believed my country could be better and do more. We didn’t need to be continually left behind,” she said. “We have to keep fighting and making it better. And we’re still doing that.”

The final audience question asked Sirleaf for her thoughts on how to overcome cultural barriers that prevent women from being in positions of power.

“We have to continue to challenge the stereotype that women’s only role is to take care of home and children.” she said. “We need to look at the Scandinavian countries and the quota systems they have used.”

The pace of change is simply too slow, she said.

“We are a century away from gender equity at the current pace,” Sirleaf said. “Can you imagine the No. 1 democracy and power of the world has not been able to elect a woman president? That tells you how hard the battle is.”

Video recordings of the talks with Morgan Muir, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Ben Rhodes can be viewed on Perry World House’s YouTube channel.