The Rise of Women in Africa

© CI/Bailey Evans

Editor's note: Later this week, the Government of Botswana and CI are convening African heads of state, policy experts and industry leaders for a groundbreaking meeting to forge a sustainable future for Africa. Below, CI-Liberia Country Director Jessica Donovan-Allen reflects on the positive change she’s witnessed in Africa over the past 13 years.

Ever since I began working with the West African conservation community in 1999 as an intern with CI, I have seen dramatic changes in this region where I now live and work. One of the most startling developments is the role women now play in leadership, both within the conservation community and more broadly across the continent.

Years ago when I started visiting West Africa on behalf of CI, I often found myself surrounded by men. This was true at the office, in stakeholder workshops and in almost every meeting I had with local communities, no matter where I was in West Africa.

But this is changing. Today in Liberia, I find myself in the company of strong dynamic female leaders. Many of the local NGOs I work with are now led by women. Even in my own office, many positions previously all held by men are now filled by women.

This trend in leadership now goes all the way to the top in African governments. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president in Africa, was recently joined by a second female president: Joyce Banda of Malawi. Many of Liberia’s cabinet ministers are also women making great strides in the country’s development.

While I do not believe that I can fully explain this trend, it may be due to an increasing recognition of the real role women play in their own communities. A friend of mine, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, describes this in the introduction of her book “Mighty Be Our Powers,” where she outlines the often overlooked but incredibly significant role women played in holding society together during times of chaos.

When President Johnson Sirleaf was elected in 2005, she took over a country struggling to recover from 14 years of civil war. Since then, President Johnson Sirleaf has been committed to developing an economy based on sustainability — one that will protect the country’s ample natural resources and ensure a more prosperous future for the Liberian people.

Under President Johnson Sirleaf’s leadership, the government of Liberia has made substantial progress on several fronts, including:

  • Enactment of the New Forest Reform Law in 2006, outlining a pathway for sustainable forest management;
  • Establishment of the National Climate Change Secretariat to provide cross-sectoral coordination on key climate change issues;
  • Promotion of best practice with extractive industries, particularly mining, oil and gas; and
  • Adoption of an energy policy focused on transforming the country’s energy production from diesel-powered generators to renewable sources.

Last year, Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, along with Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman.

Today CI is working with the Liberian government to build upon these successes and create a lasting model for sustainable development in Africa. This includes supporting the government to mainstream environmental management in the Poverty Reduction Strategy; piloting activities with several of the country’s leading extractive and agricultural companies; and working with the local government and other partners to develop a landscape-level demonstration of green economic development in Nimba County.

As we at CI-Liberia get ready to attend the Summit for Sustainability in Africa — together with President Johnson Sirleaf, top representatives from nine other African countries and important global business leaders — I am very proud of the achievements made through women’s empowerment in Africa, and I hope that this shift in power can help us continue to make great strides toward ensuring lasting development.

Jessica Donovan-Allen is the country director of CI-Liberia.