In the past few months, I have had the honor of hearing Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — who has just become the first woman elected head of state of an African country — three times. In March, Sirleaf was in Washington, D.C., to address a special joint session of Congress.
Just as her historic election has been cheered by women everywhere, she was elected with the strong support of many of Liberia's women voters, especially "market women" and those from the grassroots who are tired of war and want a better life for their children.
Many Liberian women and men believe Sirleaf brings new leadership, integrity and style that will help erase some of Liberia's decades-old legacy of violence, political unrest, corruption and civil war and put the country on track to a brighter and more peaceful future.
Sirleaf herself lived through terrifying experiences in the country's chaotic past. In the 1970s, shortly after she received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University, she returned home to Liberia and began her career in politics as the country's minister of finance. Several years later, after a military coup, she was forced into exile for the first time.
In the mid-1980s, she returned to Liberia and tried to campaign for a new government, only to be imprisoned twice and eventually forced back into exile. During her years away, she served as a senior World Bank official, vice president of Citibank's Africa regional office and a United Nations program director for Africa with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General. But she never lost sight of returning home.
In 1997, she did return to Liberia to be a candidate in the presidential elections. She lost to Charles Taylor, the leader of the splinter group that had led a coup against the last president and started a civil war, and was promptly accused of treason by Taylor's new government. In 2003, a United Nations-backed special court issued an arrest warrant and indictment for war crimes charges against Taylor, forcing him to step down and paving the way for the 2005 election. Sirleaf won fair and square — and with strong democratic participation of Liberian citizens.
As she told Congress, when she traveled around Liberia during her campaign for the presidency, "I came face to face with the human devastation of war, which killed a quarter of a million of our 3 million people and displaced most of the rest. Hundreds of thousands escaped across borders. More … fled into the bush, constantly running from one militia or another, often surviving by eating rodents and wild plants that made them sick and even killed them.
"Our precious children died of malaria, parasites and malnourishment. Our boys, full of potential, were forced to be child soldiers, to kill or be killed. Our girls, capable of being anything they could imagine, were made into sex slaves, gang-raped by men with guns, made mothers while they were still children themselves.
"But," she continued, "listening to the hopes and dreams of our people, I recall the words of a Mozambican poet who said, 'Our dream has the size of freedom.' My people, like your people, believe deeply in freedom — and, in their dreams, they reach for the heavens. I represent those dreams. I represent their hope and their aspirations.
"I ran for president because I am determined to see good governance in Liberia in my lifetime. But I also ran because I am the mother of four, and I wanted to see our children smile again."
Sirleaf has always spoken proudly about being the granddaughter of a rural "market woman" and explains that although neither of her grandmothers could read or write, their determination and strong characters made them her role models and inspiration. As one Liberian mother put it very simply just before the election: "I want education for my children, clean water, peace, just like everyone else. Look what the men have done to this country. I will vote for the lady."
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.