Black Presidents Tout Women’s Rights

Malawi's and Liberia's leaders champion reproductive health in a way that most U.S. leaders do not.

Malawian President Joyce Banda (AFP/AFP); Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Stan Honda/AFP)
Malawian President Joyce Banda (AFP/AFP); Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Stan Honda/AFP)

(The Root) — The woman in the bright-pink traditional African dress spoke firmly: “It is unacceptable that a mother should die while giving birth because the nearest health center is far away.” President Joyce Banda of Malawi was speaking at the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly last month, before the same audience that listened to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Michel Joseph Martelly of Haiti and President Barack Obama.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, also talked about women’s issues in her speech to the group of 193 heads of state: “We have made strong strides in gender equality, but much more must be done for girls’ education and women’s empowerment.”

Both Banda and Sirleaf escaped violent marriages and struggled through single motherhood to overcome poverty and eventually make history as the only two female leaders in the modern history of Africa. And both women have placed the issues of reproductive health and family planning at the center of their national agendas.

As a clear indication of where her interests lie, Banda, soon after taking office, sold the presidential jet and the fleet of Mercedes limousines and launched the Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood. In Liberia, where nearly 1 in 1,000 women dies in childbirth (in the United States, it is 1 in 2,400), Sirleaf established the Reach Every Pregnant Woman program to ensure that all pregnant women get the medical attention they need. Both leaders are fighting entrenched cultural and religious ideas about family planning.

In so doing, they have brought these issues into the center of the global development discussion. (Meanwhile, in the U.S., the terms “reproductive rights” and “family planning” are often co-opted and shrunken in scope to mean “the abortion debate.”)

Much of this shift rests in the international focus on the Millennium Development Goals, eight goals that were officially established at the U.N. in 2000 to concentrate the global community on achieving “significant, measurable improvements in people’s lives.” The mission of the fifth MDG is to improve maternal health, reducing the world maternal-mortality rate by three quarters between 1990 and 2015, and to achieve universal access to reproductive health, including family planning.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan co-chairs the U.N. Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children, dedicated to increasing access to medicine, medical devices and other supplies to women and children. Like Sirleaf and Banda, Jonathan has affirmed his country’s commitment to the issue of reproductive health, even tweeting during the General Assembly gathering in September: “Government has adopted measures to reverse maternal death.”

These African leaders see clearly the wide umbrella that is reproductive health, an umbrella that not only covers abortion, contraception and the tragedies of child marriage and maternal and infant mortality but also reaches beyond. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2010 at an international population conference, “Reproductive health care is critical to the health of women, and … women’s health is essential to the prosperity and opportunity of all, to the stability of families and communities and [to] the sustainability and development of nations.”

In Somalia, for example, which has one of the world’s highest fertility rates, the connection between family planning and food security is clear: Somali women — who, on average, have seven children each — must travel great distances to find food and water. At some point in the terrible trek, they are often forced to choose which child to abandon for the sake of the others.