The rise of Africa's women politicians

Liberians may elect the continent's first female head of state.

In the US, the notion of a woman president is, for now, only a fiction played out on network TV. But here, as election workers continue to count the ballots cast in Tursday's landmark elections, Liberians could soon find that they have chosen Africa's first-ever woman president.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank official and grandmother of six, is a front-runner in the race to head this small West African nation. Yet she's hardly alone on the continent. Across Africa, voters are increasingly putting their hope in women as capable and upstanding saviors - partly in a "throw the male bums out" reaction to continued corruption.

• Rwanda has the world's highest ratio of women in parliament - 49 percent. Also, of the 50 legislatures with the most female members, 11 are in Africa.

• South Africa's recently installed deputy president is a woman - as are the vice presidents of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

• Five members of Sudan's new postwar cabinet are women - a significant increase from the last one.

In fact, Africa has long been "extremely progressive when it comes to women in politics," says Gisela Geisler, author of a book on the subject. And now there's a further "jelling" of women in power, she says, partly because 10 years after a major wave of democracy swept across Africa, voters see that "not much has changed in terms of corruption." These days, Dr. Geisler says, "people have greater hope in women."

That's certainly true in Liberia.

Polls put Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf neck and neck with her main rival, former soccer star George Weah. At a rally the other day, roughly 100,000 people in a country of 3.4 million showed up to cheer for her. Campaign buttons proclaimed, "Ellen, she's our man." Supporters said her name stands for, "Every Liberian Loves Ellen Naturally."

"I want a good future," said Floyd Thomas, an electrician who took the day off to support Johnson-Sirleaf. Screaming over a brass marching band honking beside him, he says that, unlike the country's previous rulers, "She will bring development."

In a country where corruption is rife, graft and its impact on development is clearly on voters' minds. In a break with the past, some voters this year have reportedly booed candidates who tried to buy votes by passing out food and other goodies.

For her part, Johnson-Sirleaf says Liberia's women politicos have been less corrupt. Bouncing along a mud-puddled road on the way to a rally, she says, "There has been no women's name associated with major corruption." In fact, "all the prominent role-model women" have had integrity as "one of their key attributes."

The observation applies elsewhere in Africa. Last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, for instance, is known for her grass-roots efforts to empower rural Kenyans to stand up to corruption in their government.

So are women inherently less corrupt?

The World Bank concluded in 2001 that "women can be an effective force for the rule of law and good governance" - and has increased its support of women-oriented programs.

But Geisler doesn't think female leaders will necessarily be less corrupt. So far, she says, "Women have just had less opportunity" for graft, in part because they're relative newcomers - and because when they do get into office, they're watched extra closely. Furthermore, politics hasn't fundamentally changed. "Even if you have better ideals when you enter politics, you'll soon notice you can't compete if you're not corrupt," says Geisler, a researcher at the Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway, whose book is called, "Women and the Remaking of Politics in Southern Africa."

Nor does women's presence in power guarantee good government - as seen in Zimbabwe, among other countries, with its skyrocketing inflation, collapsing economy, and draconian policies.

Yet women do bring different priorities. "Because of their nurturing responsibilities," they tend to value "education, health, water, food - things having to do with social security," argues Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda in the Kenya office of UNIFEM, the UN's women development agency. "Those are priorities before making the borders secure and the defense ministry well-resourced."

Either way, women will increasingly be joining the ranks of the powerful, Geisler says. After joining Africa's colonial-era movements to struggle for freedom for their country and themselves, they were marginalized after independence, she explains. Many went into the nonprofit or civil-society sector - or ended up just "singing and dancing at airports" as part of arrival ceremonies for male politicians. But now, with voter dissatisfaction rising, they're increasingly moving into politics.

As for Liberia, perhaps it's not surprising it may be the first African nation with a woman president. "The country was founded by emancipated slaves" from the US in the 1800s, explains Rev. Katurah York Cooper, a pastor at the African Methodist Episcopal church in Monrovia. They arrived "with an empowering idea" of equality and freedom that "trickled down into every aspect of society."

Furthermore, Liberian men respect women "because they are afraid of you," says Etweda Cooper of the Liberian Women's Initiative. "They think these women want them to toe a straighter line."

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