Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Women Overcome Conflict, Abuse to Lead Nations 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  March 6 / 11

Zack Gross

As we approach International Women’s Day, March 8th, it is an opportunity to celebrate the courage and perseverance of women who have risen from poverty, violence and incarceration not only to head their governments but to become global symbols of leadership. 

A quick perusal of conventional “most influential women’s” lists reveals that Sarah Palin and Lady Gaga are near the top, leaving out the three women that this author feels are more worthy of note.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is Liberia, West Africa’s “Iron Lady
.”  Liberia was “colonized” by ex-African slaves from America but the returned group actually enslaved the indigenous people they encountered. 

Since then, on-going conflict has resulted and dictatorship has been the norm.  Ellen studied in Liberia and in the US and ultimately served as Finance Minister in Liberia in the 1970s. 

She left the government over concerns about corruption and, after a military coup, was forced to flee her country and live in Nairobi, Kenya.

Johnson-Sirleaf returned to campaign against the dictator in the 1985 elections, she was jailed and then deported.  Back in Kenya, she worked as an economist for Citibank and for the United Nations. 

She returned to run again for President in 1997 but was defeated in what she charged was a tainted election process. 

After years of civil war and grave human rights abuses that have brought past Liberian leaders such as Charles Taylor to the international courts as war criminals, Johnson ran again for power in 2005 and took office in January, 2006. 

She is the first elected female leader in Africa, a mother of four and grandmother of six, and now 72 years old.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner (along with the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament and the US Presidential Medal of Honour) who has come to symbolize the struggle for freedom of the Burmese people. 

She has spent most of the past fifteen years under house arrest.  There are over 2,000 political prisoners being held in Burma, which has been ruled by a military dictatorship since a coup 23 years ago. 

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was a hero of Burmese independence who was assassinated when she was just two years old. 

She studied and lived in India and the United Kingdom and then returned to her country in 1988, at the age of 43, to nurse her dying mother. 

She became caught up in the pro-democracy movement and rose to General Secretary of her party. 

Her National League for Democracy won 82% of the seats in a national election forced on the dictatorship by international pressure in 1990. 

The dictatorship has never recognized these election results and has kept the rightful head of the country a virtual prisoner since 1995.  Even when her husband was dying in 1999, they prevented her seeing him one last time, saying that if she left the country to visit him in England, she would not be allowed back home. 

In the past few months, she has been allowed to speak again in public but the threat of re-arrest has been held over her.

Dilma Rousseff is Brazil’s first female President, elected last fall and sworn in at the start of this year. 

Rousseff is the daughter of an immigrant, a political exile from Bulgaria, and a school teacher from a ranching family north of Rio. 

In 1964, when
Rousseff was 17 years old, Brazil’s leftist government was overthrown by the military with help from the US.  Under the military, arrest, torture and disappearances became commonplace, while budgets for education and health care were cut in half. 

Rousseff joined a militant wing of the Socialist Party and the next few years for her included armed attacks on government installations and ultimately arrest and torture (22 days of electric shocks and three years of imprisonment). 

Once released, 
Rousseff went to university, got re-involved in politics and in the 1990s held several state cabinet positions. 

Rousseff worked with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, then-President of Brazil, in ministerial positions and as his Chief of Staff, overcame lymphoma, and then was chosen by Lula to replace him in the presidential elections. 

She modeled herself after his popular policies of being market-friendly while offering strong social programs.

Helen Johnson-Sirleaf, Aung San Suu Kyi and Dilma Rousseff are not at the top of the most influential lists of Time Magazine or, but have been and are making contributions to their countries that are remarkable. 

When considering the challenges they have had to face, they embody the spirit of International Women’s Day as most women on our planet must struggle to attain the freedom, rights and opportunities that we often take for granted.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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