Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talks to Stephanie Sy

The president of Liberia, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, discusses Ebola and her drive to advance women’s rights

Stephanie Sy: Madame President, you have now been in office for almost a decade. Was the presidency, as you look back on the last 10 years, everything you hoped it would be?

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: It comes close to everything I hoped it would be. We’ve had some shocks that were unexpected — things to do with global commodity prices, the disease that we faced one year ago. That has in a way stalled some of the goals that we had set. But in terms of being able to renew my nation, to be able to be able to bring back a devastated country, to restore hope to our people, to lift women and to give them a new horizon, a new ambition and new dreams, in respect of all of that, I think we’ve accomplished it, and I feel very good about that.

Even from Day One of your inauguration, you talked about women’s rights. Specifically, what do you want to accomplish in that arena before your term expires?

I would like to make sure, first of all, that our women in the informal sector — I mean, these are the farmers and the traders, many of them are not educated, many of them lacking literacy — be able to give them better working conditions. And we’ve done a lot to be able to achieve that. I’d also like every girl to be in school to make sure that their entire potential can be met and that they will not be disadvantaged because of access to quality education. I’d like to see every woman being able to have access to all the rights that men have access to — right to land, right to credit, right to technology.

‘Women were ready for change in Liberia. And I’m glad that they decided to go ahead and vote a woman in office. I’m privileged to have been the one to represent their aspirations.’

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Why don’t they have those rights yet in Liberia?

Well, because, first of all, because there are social inhibitions. There are cultural disadvantages that they face. We have to overcome the practice of male domination. Even though it’s changing and changing in Liberia quite drastically.

You’re saying it’s cultural this male domination and that women were treated as second-class citizens. How were you able to break through, given those cultural barriers?

I tell you, it may seem as a paradox, but first of all, I think Liberia, being a small country, has not had the kind of deep restrictions against women. We’ve had some pretty strong women leaders going back into our history. In this particular case, this was a strategy to say, “Hey, this country is over 100 years old, and it has been male dominated, and now we want a change. Now we want to see what a woman can do.”

And the women just came together behind this strategy and just decided that it was time. And don’t forget, we had already had two decades of war. People were tired of war. War was seen as something that had been initiated and carried on largely by men, who in fact had subjected women during this period. So women were ready for change in Liberia. And I’m glad that they decided to go ahead and vote a woman in office. I’m privileged to have been the one to represent their aspirations.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

I’ve also read that genital mutilation is something that you want to address before your term expires. How much resistance do you face culturally when you take on an issue like that?

It is a difficult one, because as you pointed out, it is cultural, long-standing. But you know we’ve already made some progress on Liberia on this. We have begun to sensitize traditional women leaders, pointing out to them the ill effects of this on young girls. Some of them have come to see it, even the traditional leaders. Men also are beginning. So it is still going to be a long road, but I’m optimistic that if we continue on the progress we have already made, we can get to that. It’s a battle that I’m going to fight.

How did you get this fight in you? I have read that you are a domestic violence survivor. How much does that continue to drive you when it comes to women’s rights?

I grew up in a situation in which my family setting perhaps provided the basis for my strength, particularly my mother. My father was the first native member of the legislature, but he got ill very early in my early childhood, so there was no way he could lead me or propel me and my siblings to what we are.

But my mother was the strength. She was the anchor. She was a preacher and a teacher. And she had four children who she had to take through school without any support, without a husband, who was ill for seven years and finally died. I think that strength comes from her. So we all learned, to be ahead in life, to survive, to get what you wanted, you had to do it on your own. You have to be the one that pulled yourself up, and that strength, I think, has stayed with all of us and with me, because my whole life story is so different. I got married right after high school. I was 17 years old.

Why did you do that?

Because I had a good friend that I wanted to be with, is that enough?


And I had four children. I had four children who I had to take care of, young children, before I went back to school. When I went to school, I went to school with a huge determination that I wasn’t going to let my classmates, who had already gone ahead and completed college — I was going to catch up with them. I believe that the whole long road of having to make it on your own, having to excel having to go that extra mile for your own self-success, maybe that strengthened me, and maybe that prepared me for all the many other difficulties that I would face on this road.

‘Ebola was an unknown enemy. I didn’t know what to do. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody could tell us what we were faced with. How do we react to it? People were dying. People were running. People were crying. I cried too. I didn’t know what to do.’

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Was the Ebola outbreak the darkest time of your time in office so far?

Without a doubt, the darkest time. I mean, every other difficulty I faced I knew, and I had the means to find a way to deal with it. Ebola was an unknown enemy. I didn’t know what to do. Nobody knew what to do, nobody could tell us what we were faced with. How do we react to it? People were dying. People were running. People were crying. I cried too. I didn’t know what to do. We turned to prayers. We did everything in those very early days. But then, you know, then came the pronouncement that 20,000 of our citizen would die by January in the three affected countries. I think that just brought out everything in me. And I just got on the air and said this will not happen. We are not going to die. We are going to take responsibility. We are going to do what we can. We started some, you know, measure that proved wrong. Let’s just put it that way.

Are you referring to the quarantine?

We quarantined people. We restricted movement across borders. We put our security forces to make sure that they enforce those decisions, and then we had some incidences, the scuffle between the army and some of the young people in one of our communities, and someone died.

You were scared?

Yes, I was. There was no doubt about it. We were all scared. But we turned things around when we found that the military approach was just not going to do it and was not the thing to do. And we realized the only thing that we could do is to turn to our communities and put them in charge. And that turned the whole thing around and, I think, the determination. I went around to the different clinics and hospitals, and they told me that I took risks because I didn’t wear gloves or wear protective gear or anything like that. But I went there because our doctors and nurses were dying. They were afraid to treat anybody because of that, and so I had to go into the clinics. I had to give to them encouragement.

It exposed a lot of vulnerabilities in the public health system in the three countries that you’re talking about — in your country, in Guinea, in Sierra Leone. If Ebola were to come back today, are you prepared now?

Yes, we are, and I am glad to say that. There is always room for improvement and expanding your capabilities, and we are working on that.

We also know what until all of our countries have the kind of response capability, until all of them reach a level of being declared free of Ebola, we are always at risk.

How much did it mean to you to win the Noble Peace Prize?

Quite a lot, because I didn’t expect it. It’s one of those positive surprises in life. True, that my life story of fighting, of getting up, of being beaten and rising again, fighting for the things I believe in. And if anybody looks, they’ll see consistency from the time I took a position — in prison I took a certain position — there is a consistency in that, says I earned. Those of us who went to jail in those particular days — you know, when jail was jail — you don’t know whether you are going to live until the next day. So I went through that. And I went to jail twice. My first time I went to jail, it took the U.S. Congress to take a strong position because Liberia is such a prime country for them.

And I went to jail again, and I took political positions. So in a way I know that in selecting me, they went through the life history. I am pleased that today I can use that when I work with other women and young girls and I say there is a lot you can be, if you stay with your dreams, work at those dreams, determined to get what you want.

Your political career has been decades in the making. Your predecessor Charles Taylor, of course, convicted of war crimes — he’s in jail. At one time you were allied with him. How do you view him today?

Charles Taylor had an opportunity to bring some change to Liberia and those of us in the early days who felt — I was not in the country, I was out — but somebody who could have brought something different. But Charles Taylor just proved to be, quite frankly, bad for the country. And so the devastation. He penetrated the country very well. He was a powerful political force. And some of the force is still with us today. Some of that loyalty is still with us today.

I read that when you were 9, you got into a fight over a plum that had been stolen. Is that true?

The story is true. In the morning, kids woke up and went to look for which are the fruits in the trees which are ripe.

So I started to pick a plum that I think is the choice of the person who lives in the house where the plum tree was. And she decided that it was her plum and she wasn’t going to let me get it. So we had a scuffle on that, and I think she beat me, to tell you the truth. So I went home crying. I missed my plum and a got a beating.

And then you went to your grandma?

My grandmother … in the traditional days … people were protected with charms and things like that. So my grandmother said she had the right thing. She took a razor blade and put some nicks into the hand. And, my god, how I didn’t get my wrist cut, didn’t die. They know how to do it. They are very expert. And then there is a portion there, you see, which is black because it is charcoal and whatever else.

The magic is still there.

I don’t think it will go away.

When will Ellen Johnson Sirleaf retire and watch Green Bay Packer games? Because I’ve heard you like them.

I want to watch Green Bay Packers games, and every time I find the opportunity to do so, I do. Even if I miss some work. But I don’t think I want to rest. I hope that the inspiration I bring to women all over the world whom I meet when I go places — they do come and tell me the inspiration — I will be out there in the world working with women’s groups.

I also want to use whatever skills, whatever strength that I may have left to continue to inspire girls and women to get us to the place where equality is certain.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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