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African women inspired by Liberia's new leader

Women across Africa are looking to Liberia’s “Mama Ellen,” the continent’s first elected female president, to inspire a generation of new politicians and bring peace and clean governance to her shattered nation.

Women across Africa are looking to Liberia’s “Mama Ellen,” the continent’s first elected female president, to inspire a generation of new politicians and bring peace and clean governance to her shattered nation.

From the unemployed to government ministers, African women celebrated Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s win, hailing her as a standard bearer for their gender in often male-dominated African societies.

“The taboo has been broken ... this is a historic moment,” said Marie-Angelique Savane, a Senegalese sociologist. “Men have shown what they can do. Many women will now think ’Why not me?’”

Several women have led African governments and many hold senior positions, but the Harvard-trained economist is the first to obtain the top head of state job through elections.

Johnson-Sirleaf, who campaigned to the sound of the feminist anthem “I am woman, hear me roar,” sees her victory over soccer icon George Weah, confirmed on Wednesday, as just the start for African women.

“It is a great door-opener for women all over the continent and I am very pleased that I am the one who is going to open the doors,” the 67-year-old former finance minister told Reuters.

Tired of corruption
Traditionally, a woman’s role in African societies is to take care of the family, educate the children and work.

But many, tired of widespread corruption on the world’s poorest continent, believe women make better leaders than men.

“Women are sincere, dynamic but most importantly, they are not tainted by corruption,” Hadiata Samba, a 36-year-old insurance worker, said in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Many of Johnson-Sirleaf’s fans are men who see women as less likely to turn to the gun than the men who have dragged so many African states into savage conflicts.

“Johnson-Sirleaf faces a huge task rebuilding a nation devastated by a 14-year civil war that killed 250,000 people.

'Iron Lady'
Known popularly as Liberia’s “Iron Lady” and by supporters as “Mama Ellen,” she has pledged to peacefully reconcile warlords behind years of violence and help child soldiers brutalized by the wars they were enlisted to fight.

“This will be the turning point for peace in Liberia because we as women reject war and conflict and I don’t think there is anyone better placed to lead that country right now,” said Zoe Bakoko Bakoru, Uganda’s minister for gender, labor and social development.

Modern Africa’s first female president was Liberia’s Ruth Perry, appointed -- but not elected -- head of a transitional state council in 1996. Central African Republic’s Elisabeth Domitien became the first woman to serve as prime minister of an African nation in 1975.

Women across Africa have made significant advances at the ballot box.

Africa leads the developing world in the ratio of women holding legislative positions -- 16 percent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Tiny Rwanda has the highest proportion of women serving in parliament -- 49 percent.

South Africa’s most senior female politician is Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and neighboring Zimbabwe’s Joyce Mujuru is vice president. Mozambique and Sao Tome have women premiers. Africa’s oil giant, Nigeria, has a woman at the head of the all-important Finance Ministry, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

“It’s not about women, it’s about having quality leadership and if those are women, so much the better,” said Edith Nawakwi, the first woman to head a political party in Zambia.

But even in Liberia, women’s rights have a long way to go. Rape was commonly used as a weapon of war and forced marriages still occur. Many look to Johnson-Sirleaf for a new start.

“Women will have more rights in Liberia now,” said unemployed Monica Nah in Monrovia. “We are going to see to it.”

Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai said: “Women have a great opportunity to work for peace and I hope ... we shall demonstrate that we can indeed create the kind of environment that the people of Africa have been searching for all these years.”