She is described as the Iron Lady, Africa’s first ever democratically elected woman president. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has been in Liberia’s top job since January, has called on the European Union to provide more help for her country. On a recent visit to Strasbourg, the former finance minister and Africa director for the UN Development Programme told EuroNews that one of her priorities is creating jobs for young people. This in a country where nearly 80 percent of the population is unemployed, and where natural resources were plundered to fund civil war.
EuroNews: Just under a year ago the people of Liberia voted for you, they gave you their trust to bring back stability to your country after 14 years of civil war. Liberia is widely seen as a test case in Africa for post-war reconstruction. What would you say today are your biggest challenges?
EJS: Our biggest challenge perhaps is to make sure that we get our young people into school, into skill-streamed programmes, and that we create jobs for them. We’ve got some 120,000 war-affected youths that have been demobilised, that are being reintegrated into their communities and we have to make sure that we have the facilities to be able to absorb them, because they are vulnerable and can easily be persuaded or be allowed to go back into conflict and so that, I think, is our biggest challenge.
EuroNews: Former Liberian president Charles Taylor will be standing trial alone in The Hague in April, the date has been set. He will be standing alone. What about all his associates who still operate, reportedly actively, in Liberia?
EJS: Well, let’s put it this way: Mr Taylor was not indicted in a Liberian court. He was indicted in the UN special court for Sierra Leone. And the process is taking place in keeping with that indictment. So far in Liberia, we have not decided to have a war crimes tribunal. What we have decided, is to start with a Truth and Reconciliation commission, and the work of that commission has started. Now, when that commission makes recommendations that could lead to some system of justice and the need for that, then at that time, we will consider those recommendations and act accordingly.
EuroNews: As Africa’s first democratically-elected woman president, you talk a lot about women’s rights and gender equality. What exactly is being done in your country for the state of womanhood, a country which is not famed for its record on human rights?
EJS: Well, in a first instance, I hope that we’re correcting that image, that we’re trying to move toward an administration and a government that does indeed respect human rights and will not allow the infringement of those rights by anyone. In the case of women, already I think women feel themselves much better positioned because of my own position. We have appointed women in what we call the strategic positions in government. We’ve just passed a tough rape law that makes life imprisonment for anyone who rapes any of our young women. And we’re doing two other things: we’re going to be launching a nationwide literacy programme for our market women to enable them to read and write, and we have a special programme for girls’ education.
EuroNews: Another major question regarding women in Africa: two million women every year across Africa undergo female genital mutilation. What are your feelings regarding this practice and what do you think the right approach should be?
EJS: That is a problem in our country too. It’s a traditional and cultural problem. I think it has to be addressed through education. We must start from the primary schools, to talk about the importance of not violating the physique of women, we must talk about the consequences of this practice. It would be very difficult if we were to legislate right away and try to enforce it.
EuroNews: Is it a practice that should be condemned?
EJS: No it’s a problem that must be resisted, we have to object to it, but we also have to know that we have to work with those who have this culture, this tradition so deeply embedded in their systems, and so it takes a bit more than just condemnation, it also takes instruction and education, because that’s the only way you’ll be able to really solve it in a permanent way. You don’t want to have laws, you don’t want to prosecute people and then have them do the same thing underground.
EuroNews: Another major scourge which affects Africa is AIDS of course, and the apparent reluctance by some heads of state to actually acknowledge the problem. Where do you think real change starts?
EJS: Well I tell you, first of all, we have recognised HIV/AIDS as an increasing problem for us. The incidence of AIDS has risen from 4 percent a few years ago to somewhere between 10 to 12 percent today. That’s disturbing. We’re about to appoint an AIDS Commission. We’ve already put in a proposal to the Global Fund to be able to get assistance and we’re trying to attack this in a two-pronged way: first anti-viral drugs are available for some of our people, we don’t have enough yet, we’re still mobilising support, but also changing people’s behaviour, through instruction and education, we’ve got posters all over the country, we’re introducing preventive measures in schools, and so we’re very conscious of this problem and committed to addressing it.