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)

Family planning has a direct bearing on population growth, which in turn affects sanitation, finite resources and the degradation of the environment. And in terms of economic empowerment — on a micro and macro level — the link is unmistakable.

In the book Why We Care: Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, Banda describes her best friend growing up: “Chrissie went [to school] one term, but she couldn’t return — her school fees cost $6, and her parents couldn’t raise the money. My parents could, and I went on and finished my schooling, and today I am the president of Malawi. Chrissie went back to the village, got married early, ended up with half a dozen children or more, and she is still there, locked in poverty.”

But this is not just “an African problem.” In the U.S., the teen-pregnancy rate is the highest in the developed world. And although the U.S. spends $98 billion annually on hospitalization for pregnancy and childbirth, the maternal-mortality rate has doubled in the past 25 years.

Although such statistics are grim, it’s possible to envision an entirely different scenario. The far-reaching positive repercussions of having access to reproductive health and family planning are depicted in a highly engaging video made by the Nike Foundation called “The Girl Effect,” which shows how changing the life of one girl by providing her with access to reproductive health and education can drive positive global consequences.

Presidents Banda and Sirleaf are examples of such a “girl effect,” and they bring their own experiences as women to bear on their leadership. In her autobiography, This Child Will Be Great, Sirleaf describes the traumatic consequences of a society torn by poverty and war, in which women are utterly disempowered. She describes meeting one such woman, the victim of a rape at the hands of soldiers for whom such vicious behavior is as common as it is horrible.

In Why We Care, Banda explains how she suffered a postpartum hemorrhage after the birth of her fourth child. She survived only because she could afford the kind of special care not available to most women in Malawi, where the rate of maternal mortality is devastatingly high: 58 times that of the U.S. These personal experiences drive these leaders’ commitment to push for change — and attention — on a global scale.

The world is listening: Oct. 11 was International Day of the Girl, and the U.N. joined millions in celebrating the strength of women and girls. Yet in the U.S., a war on women wages on. Rape is defined as “legitimate” or not, and in the recent vice presidential debate, reproductive health was mentioned briefly, and only in the context of religion and abortion.

In the second presidential debate, on Oct. 16, most of the talk about women concerned binders (apparently full of women), although President Obama did mention funding for Planned Parenthood — along with Big Bird. None of the questions posed during the debate concerned reproductive health.

But the international community is focusing on other, wider-reaching women’s reproductive-health issues. And two African women — once girls themselves — are demanding that these issues be part of the global agenda.

Ann Clark Espuelas is a copy editor at The Root and co-editor of the book Why We Care: Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health.