By Nellie Peyton

DAKAR, March 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Liberia's trailblazing former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will launch a plan on Sunday to help other African women reach the top in a continent dominated by male heads of state.

Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, became Africa's first elected female head of state in 2006 and stepped down in 2018 in the war-scarred West African state's first peaceful democratic transition in seven decades.

"We're creating this wave of women who are ready to take high-level leadership positions in society, and they're going to do it unabashedly, they're going to go for it intentionally," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"After many years of trying to ascend to top leadership positions, I had the experience of how difficult it is for women," said Johnson Sirleaf, who was the fifth person to win the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership in 2017.

Only about one in four parliament members in sub-Saharan Africa are women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

The Amujae Initiative, which means "we are going up" in Liberian local dialect, is the flagship programme of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, which Johnson Sirleaf established after leaving office in 2018.

"I felt I had a commitment to dedicate, after my presidency, my time, effort and resources to promote women in leadership positions," Johnson Sirleaf said ahead of the launch on International Women's Day on Sunday.

In its first year, the initiative will provide mentorship to 15 women leaders, with the support of two other female ex-presidents: Malawi's Joyce Banda and Catherine Samba-Panza of Central African Republic.

The first cohort of participants, who will meet several times a year, include Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, and Malado Kaba, Guinea's first female finance minister, as well as lawyers and activists.

"Most of my peer-level engagements since I became mayor 20 months or so ago have been international, so without an African focus," said Aki-Sawyerr, who won an award for her work during the country's Ebola crisis. "What this opportunity provides is an African lens and a female lens at the same time, so it's hugely valuable."

Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank and United Nations official, took on the leadership of Liberia at a time when it was seeking to heal deep divisions and rebuild after two civil wars notorious for their brutality and use of child soldiers.

Although she hopes to see more female presidents and parliamentarians, she said she also aims to boost women in the private sector and civil society.


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