Black Presidents Tout Women's Rights

Black Presidents Tout Women's Rights

Africa's female leaders are fighting entrenched cultural and religious ideas about family planning.

Published October 23, 2012

Dr. Joyce Banda of Malawi and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. (Photos from left: EPA/AHMED JALLANZO /LANDOV, AP Photo/Josh Reynolds, File)

(The Root) -- The woman in the bright-pink traditional African dress spoke firmly: "It is unacceptable that a mother should die while giving birth because the nearest health center is far away." President Joyce Banda of Malawi was speaking at the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly last month, before the same audience that listened to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Michel Joseph Martelly of Haiti and President Barack Obama.


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, also talked about women's issues in her speech to the group of 193 heads of state: "We have made strong strides in gender equality, but much more must be done for girls' education and women's empowerment."


Both Banda and Sirleaf escaped violent marriages and struggled through single motherhood to overcome poverty and eventually make history as the only two female leaders in the modern history of Africa. And both women have placed the issues of reproductive health and family planning at the center of their national agendas.


As a clear indication of where her interests lie, Banda, soon after taking office, sold the presidential jet and the fleet of Mercedes limousines and launched the Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood. In Liberia, where nearly 1 in 1,000 women dies in childbirth (in the United States, it is 1 in 2,400), Sirleaf established the Reach Every Pregnant Woman program to ensure that all pregnant women get the medical attention they need. Both leaders are fighting entrenched cultural and religious ideas about family planning.


In so doing, they have brought these issues into the center of the global development discussion. (Meanwhile, in the U.S., the terms "reproductive rights" and "family planning" are often co-opted and shrunken in scope to mean "the abortion debate.")


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Written by Ann Clark Espuelas,


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