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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Stories of inspiration from Smart Girl Stories across the globe. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Africa’s First Democratically Elected Female President

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Africa’s First Democratically Elected Female President

Narrowly escaping execution, living in exile for over a decade, and being imprisoned did not stop Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from fighting for peace and democracy. She led her country into economic recovery post-war and a peaceful transition of power. She is a true inspiration to women everywhere. 

She is our Smart Girl today because she refused to give up on her people, her motherland Liberia despite all the suffering she went through at the hands of undemocratic leaders. She is a true inspiration to women everywhere!

Family Background

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born on October 29th 1938 to a Gola father and a Kru-German mother. Her family lived in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Sirleaf began her schooling at the College of West Africa, a preparatory school from age 10. In 1955 she completed her primary education and was married to James Sirleaf at just 17 years of age.

The couple was blessed with 4 sons. Early on in their marriage, Ellen’s husband worked in the Agricultural Department while Ellen worked as a bookkeeper at a local repair shop. In 1961 the family moved to the United States, where she was able to continue her education and earned a degree in Accounting from Madison Business College in Wisconsin.

The family later moved back to Liberia where Ellen pursued a career in the Treasury Department. She later divorced her husband because of constant abuse.

Further Education & Working in Government

In 1970 Ellen earned her Bachelor’s in Economics from the University of Colorado Boulder and went on to study public policy at Harvard Kennedy school from 1969 to 1971, earning a Master’s in Public Administration.

She returned to her motherland, Liberia, where she was appointed as the Assistant Minister of Finance in 1972. She was the Finance Minister from 1980-85 under the military dictatorship of president Doe. She was integral and often clashed with the head of state. Sirleaf was imprisoned twice during Doe’s regime and narrowly escaped execution.

In 1985 she openly criticized the government and was sentenced to10 years in prison. She was released early and fled the country.

Her Time In Exile And The Fight For Democracy

Ellen went on to live in Kenya and the United States, where she took up various roles in financial institutions from 1985-1997. After a truce had been reached in Liberia, Ellen returned to Liberia and ran for presidency in the 1997 general elections.

She finished 2nd and was forced back into exile when the government then charged her with treason. She returned back to Liberia after the then-president, Taylor went into exile in 2003. She chaired the Commission on Good Governance, which oversaw preparations for democratic elections.

In 2005 she ran for the presidency again, vowing to end civil strife and corruption and establish and rebuild the country’s dwindling economy. She won the run-off elections and was sworn in as president of Liberia on January 16th, 2006.

Presidency & Fight For Economic Liberation

Ellen got into the office when Liberia was facing serious economic and social challenges. Employment in the country was over 80%, and there were other social injustices like a violation of human rights still going on. She sought international aid to recover Liberia’s economy, and by late 2010, Liberia was free of debt.

Sirleaf continued to fight for women’s rights and end corruption in Liberia by forming committees to tackle these issues. Ellen also established free primary education for all children and even built a national university.

She finally retired from politics in 2017 after two successful terms in office. Liberia saw the first-ever peaceful democratic transition of power in over 73 years in January 2018. She was awarded the prestigious Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership and has been recognized as a true inspiration to women in Africa and across the globe.

The Nobel Peace Prize: Promoter Of Peace, Justice, And Democracy

In 2011, Ellen became the proud recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize along with 2 other Liberian women rights activists. She was awarded the prize for her contribution to securing peace in Liberia, promoting economic and social development, and strengthening the position of women.

Ellen helped rebuild the healthcare systems that had been severely damaged during the war.

She has also actively built a workforce to tackle the Ebola spread and is a staunch advocate for free healthcare as a means to protect against the spread of infectious diseases.

Since the onset of COVID-19, Ellen has been actively involved in leading a task force tasked with providing an evidence-based path for the future to ensure that countries effectively tackle health threats and get access to vaccines.

A True Inspiration To Young Women

Ellen has overcome obstacles and faced discrimination, yet she remains strong and confident. She is not afraid to speak up for what she believes in and fight for equality. She sets a positive example for young women everywhere, showing them that they can accomplish their dreams and make a difference in the world. She is a true inspiration to all who see her determination.

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Founder, Smart Girl, Survivor, Champion of womens rights and kids rights


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