Editor’s note: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is former president of the Republic of Liberia and founder of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. Lilian Best, head of the financial market development section of the Central Bank of Liberia, is a fellow in the IFC-Milken Institute Capital Markets Program. The article reflects the authors’ opinions.
Since 1911, societies around the world have dedicated days, months, and even decades (in Africa’s case) to celebrating women’s achievements and promoting solutions to new and persistent challenges. But over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the plight of women to outsize proportions, sharply highlighting the urgency of this year’s International Women’s Day theme: “Break the Bias.”
The onus is on us, the world’s women, to fulfill this charge. Relying on our own ingenuity, we must shift our focus, refresh our global discourse, and usher in a new era for women’s leadership.
There is no doubt that women have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s costs. Many were forced to shelter from a silent enemy that we now know to be less lethal than their own closest kin. Many women were victims of what UN Women calls the “shadow pandemic,” suffering beatings, rape, insults, and psychological trauma in what should have been a safe haven from a biological scourge.
Among the more staggering statistics from this period is one documenting the number of women who didn’t suffer or witness domestic violence: one in ten. You read that right: In Liberia, just one in ten survey respondents reported not witnessing sexual or gender-based violence, and only two in ten reported not experiencing it, during the COVID-19 lockdown.
There is a clear inverse correlation between education and susceptibility to sexual and gender-based violence. Less-educated cohorts are generally more vulnerable, because they tend to have low economic and political agency and scant access to health systems that could detect and address risks. These women suffer alone but together, listening to each other’s cries through windows and walls.
Despite the structural disadvantages we face, women have risen to the occasion. In government, we have swiftly established unpopular but undoubtedly effective measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is but one of the many women leaders stretching the bounds of ingenuity and determination to save lives.
From Ethiopia, Germany, and Slovakia to Denmark, Namibia, and Finland, the world’s 21 women heads of state and government serving when the pandemic erupted led the charge against it with transparency and integrity, outstripping their male counterparts with effective public-health policies.
Health systems, too, benefited from women’s leadership. Liberia’s director-general of the General Services Agency, Mary Broh, has shown unshakeable tenacity, setting up web-based tracking tools to take stock of COVID-19 cases, treatments, vaccinations, and supplies, and running a city-wide cleanup drive in Monrovia ahead of the country’s bicentennial celebrations.
Liberian women broke protocols and traditions to save lives, bridging the gaps between time-honored systems and the needs of the moment. While others were focused solely on the pandemic, women leaders took the initiative to set up maternal centers at COVID-19 points of care, minimizing infant mortality. They also enlisted religious communities’ support to establish testing centers, widening the net of outbreak control points.
Throughout the pandemic, women have shattered the myth that strategies based on compassion and consensus-building are weak and ineffectual. Adaptable and sensitive to the demands of the moment, women leaders have used these qualities to build unity and support for lifesaving behaviors. Rather than being defeated by the double standards held against us, women leaders have remained humble, diligent, and collegial. But above all, they have been consistent and decisive.
Moreover, we have been learning from our experiences to assess accurately the uneven social and political terrain on which we operate so that we can approach our conditions more strategically. In addition to sharpening our awareness of the difference between pandemic and endemic, COVID-19 and flu, we have also directed more attention to sexual and gender-based violence.
This problem has long been considered endemic – a cyclical scourge flowing from the honeymoon to the hospital. We should now treat it the same way we do a virus. That means isolating perpetrators and bringing them to justice, establishing systems to detect and address cases, and engaging with communities to stop the spread. We must devise curative and preventive measures that include men and boys so that a lasting cultural transformation occurs.
The post-pandemic road ahead is long. Navigating it demands women’s perseverance and strategic acumen. We must target and reform the justice and social systems that have left women to the wolves, and we must harness the indirect, outsize force that politically and economically empowered women can bring to bear against violence. We must crowd legislatures and government offices with women, creating a critical mass that can shift the paradigm on justice, peace, security, and health.
Breaking the bias may not lead to an immediate ceasefire in domestic settings. But with more women leading at every level and in every sector, we will gradually increase our collective access to education, gainful employment, and all the other resources needed to help women escape violence.
If you are a woman reading this, we challenge you to consider pursuing a public leadership role, starting in your own community. We dare you, and we believe in you. The world is yours to win.