NAIROBI, Kenya — On a continent where women suffer in nearly every measure of health and welfare, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's apparent election to the presidency of war-torn Liberia is raising hopes for a new era in African politics: the era of women.
"It's a breakthrough for African women," said Florence Butegwa, West Africa director for the United Nations Development Fund for Women. "We haven't had a role model in terms of political leadership at that highest level."
Johnson-Sirleaf would be Africa's first elected female president. Until now, political power on this vast and resource-rich continent has been wielded exclusively by men, whose legacy has been one of corruption, discrimination, despotism and war.
But today women hold key government positions in South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. They occupy roughly a quarter of the parliamentary seats in Uganda and Namibia and nearly half in Rwanda. Last year, Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan Cabinet minister, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on the environment.
While it's too early to judge their impact, experts say female leaders are bringing more attention to health and education issues and a commitment to human rights that their male counterparts have often lacked.
"It's important that women, who have been the bedrock of domestic security and family enterprise throughout Africa, now get the chance to show they can make a change in politics," said Robert Rotberg, a Harvard University professor who studies African leadership.
"Everywhere in Africa, women are the ones hauling the water, doing the agriculture. They're interested in stability, where men have been interested mostly in loot."
In an interview with Knight Ridder, Johnson-Sirleaf said her probable 19-point victory—it has yet to be certified because her opponent has alleged fraud—demonstrates to Africa's growing number of female legislators, Cabinet ministers and other politicians that the top offices in their countries are no longer marked "Men Only."
"My victory gives much more encouragement to women to seek the highest political office," Johnson-Sirleaf said, "and I expect quite a few will make it in this decade."
Liberia's women are counting on Johnson-Sirleaf to make their lives better. After a 14-year civil war, violence against women and the female HIV rate are on the rise, according to the U.N. Development Program. Liberian women are less likely than men to attend school, hold a job or know how to read.
Throughout Africa, women suffer disproportionately from HIV/AIDS and malnutrition, and they form the majority of the continent's refugee population. The United Nations says one in 16 African women dies as a result of pregnancy, compared with one in 2,800 in developed countries.
Women such as Johnson-Sirleaf and Luisa Dias Diogo, prime minister of Mozambique, represent a new breed of African leader: highly educated technocrats with distinguished resumes. Johnson-Sirleaf, who earned a master's degree at Harvard, has served as Liberian finance minister, a U.N. administrator and economist at the World Bank.
Although African women are only now scaling the top political heights, they have long been a force in public life. They played a key role in the struggle for independence, from rioting in Nigeria in protest of an oppressive colonial tax regime to taking up arms in the bloody Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya.
But the autocratic, one-party states that took hold in newly independent Africa had no place for women. The term "big man" came to describe a host of iron-fisted rulers—like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Idi Amin in Uganda—who ruthlessly plundered public resources for personal gain.
In the past decade, African countries have become more democratic, cracking open the door for female politicians.
In some cases, they've shown an ability to shape a nation's political agenda. In the tiny East African country of Rwanda, for example, women in parliament and a handful of influential female Cabinet ministers worked to include provisions aimed at reducing violence against women in a national antipoverty strategy.
Johnson-Sirleaf said women have an "added sensitivity to the human condition."
But change remains slow and uneven across the continent. In more patriarchal societies, such as Botswana and Swaziland in southern Africa, male leaders remain unchallenged. Africa still trails Europe and the Americas in the proportion of women—16 percent—serving in national legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organization of world parliaments.
Even after a concerted effort by the United Nations to recruit female candidates for Liberia's legislative elections in October, only 14 percent of the field was female.
So as Johnson-Sirleaf enters what is still very much a man's world, she will face intense scrutiny—both from Liberians, whose expectations are high, and from an entire continent unaccustomed to the idea of a woman president.
"People are looking for her to stumble," Rotberg said. "So unlike a man, if there's the slightest whiff of corruption, or if she can't bring security to the country, she'll be in trouble."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AFRICA-WOMEN
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007