The women behind Sirleaf

Liberia's transformation rested on its female micro-entrepreneurs and has lessons for other economies

India chose well to confer the Indira Gandhi peace prize on the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was also awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 2011. I could not help recalling the earlier painful history of Liberia, where the former president, Charles Taylor, was known for his cruelty and corruption in diamond mining. Sirleaf turned the war around, and managed to begin addressing corruption in war-stricken Liberia.

A striking feature of this turnaround and of Sirleaf's political success that needs to be highlighted in India and the rest of the world is that she was elected by a majority vote of women petty vendors: women who sold anything and everything from Lux soap to food, cooked and uncooked, women engaged in business in the streets of the capital, Monrovia. The coffers of the Central Bank of Liberia were empty, as the chairman of its board told me when I visited in 1998, but, as he said, "The cash is all in the streets."

It was the mobilisation of these women micro-entrepreneurs and their political vote that brought Sirleaf into power, indicating that small businesses run by women in developing countries like those in Africa and Asia are the backbone of these economies, providing livelihood, production and exchange. In Liberia, they may have transformed the political set-up, but will the new initiatives to strengthen the country's economy continue to see them as an engine of growth? Will the government build social and economic infrastructure to support them? Or will the rush to tap the mineral wealth of Liberia turn the state's attention away from these women and into the kind of unequal and "world-led" economy that we are witnessing in other mineral-rich countries?

Until recently, Liberia and its neighbour, Sierra Leone, were in the news for all the wrong reasons. Liberia had the largest number of child soldiers who had experienced such brutality that, when those wars that used child labour faded out, these young men were left damaged and brutalised, and continued to disrupt peaceful society. Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, chaired an eminent persons group that reported on the terrible experience of child soldiers used in war, in Liberia and Mozambique, and laid down a foundation for the rehabilitation of these children.

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