International Women's Day is here! March 8 is an international holiday that celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. With the hashtag #BreakTheBias, the 2022 IWD theme calls for a world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive and is free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.
Africa’s Women’s Day is also observed annually across the continent on 31 July! It’s a day that acknowledges and affirms the role of women in Africa, from politics to social and economic progress on the continent.
In this article, we are highlighting African women who are well-known for the impact they’ve made in their communities and in the world. As hard workers and pioneers in their fields, they are representing the continent well and doing it for culture!
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia
In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as President of Liberia, making her the first woman elected Head of State of an African country. She was also one of three recipients of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace for her efforts to further women’s rights.
Johnson Sirleaf is a politician and economist who served in Liberia’s finance sector and was known for her financial integrity. She was imprisoned and exiled for standing up to the government but ran for president first in the 1997 election, finishing second, and again in 2005 when she won and served until 2018.
In recognition of her leadership during Liberia’s challenging transition period after years of conflict, Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the 2017 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. In 2018, she founded the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development "to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power–its women."
Fun fact: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first woman to be Chair of the Economic Community of West African States
Angélique Kidjo, Benin
Four-time Grammy award winner and humanitarian Angélique Kidjo is one of the greatest artists in international music today. The French-Beninese singer is known for her international collaborations and her diverse musical style. Her music spans various cultures and languages and has connected Africa with the rest of the world.
She faced censorship from the government around 1983 and was banned from touring after refusing to write and perform propaganda. She then fled to Paris to continue her musical career.
Known as the “Queen of African music”, Kidjo received the 2015 Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the 2016 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award. At the G7 Summit in 2019, President Macron named her as the spokesperson for the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa initiative to help close the financing gap for women entrepreneurs in Africa.
Lupita Nyong’o, Kenya
Wakanda forever! Lupita is a Kenyan-Mexican actress who was born in Mexico and grew up in Kenya. She is mainly known for her first feature film 12 Years a Slave for which she won an Academy Award.
In 2017, she wrote an op-ed for The New York Times sharing her #MeToo experience which was part of a collection that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Nyong’o has also released a children's picture book titled Sulwe about a young, dark-skinned Kenyan girl loosely based on her childhood experiences. Sulwe became a #1 New York Times Best-Seller and was selected for the 2020 Illustrator Honor at the Coretta Scott King Awards. It also won the 2020 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the ‘Children’ category.
Her work, her activism, and her presence in Hollywood have made her an inspiration to Black women and girls around the world.
Folorunso Alakija, Nigeria
Folorunso Alakija is a billionaire businesswoman from Nigeria. She is known for her entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and fashion sense. After 12 years in the banking industry, she decided to establish her own fashion business. She launched Supreme Stitches, her first fashion label, which was later renamed The Rose Of Sharon House of Fashion.
FAMFA Oil Limited, her family’s oil exploration and production business, started in 1996 and began drilling for oil in 1998. After 17 years, the venture paid off and it reached ‘first oil’.
Alakija is very devoted to her faith and has released multiple Christian books. She gives motivational talks and has been recognized all over the world. Her hard work and determination to building a better life for herself and other Nigerians is an inspiration to all! In addition to creating opportunities and giving donations, she established the Rose of Sharon Foundation, which has been helping widows and orphans since 2008.
Fun fact: Folorunso Alakija is ranked by Forbes as the richest woman in Nigeria!
Yvonne Chaka Chaka, South Africa
Yvonne Chaka Chaka is a South African humanitarian and singer who is known all over the world for her music. She uses her music to raise awareness of the challenges Africans face like poverty, education and health. She is committed to the fight against AIDS, TB and malaria, and works with charities and foundations.
She has served as a Goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, as well as a Global Fund Champion to raise international funding. She owns a music label, production company, and other businesses.
Nelson Mandela was a mentor and father figure to Chaka Chaka and named her music as one of the things that sustained him when he was in prison. Through her activism in health advocacy and human rights, she has changed many lives!
In 2012, she became the first African woman to receive the Crystal Award by the WEF World Economic Forum in recognition of her humanitarian work.
Fun fact: In 1981, Yvonne Chaka Chaka became the first Black child to appear on South African television!
Manal Rostom, Egypt
Manal Rostom is a famous Egyptian athlete known for her exploits and activism in the world of sports. She was the first hijabi woman to be featured in an international campaign with the 2015 Nike Running campaign. In 2017, Rostom became the global face of the Nike Pro Hijab.
She is also the founder of 'Surviving Hijab', a Facebook group of about 1 million women that helps to empower women who wear the hijab. In addition to being the first Egyptian woman to run the Great Wall of China and to summit Mont Blanc, Rostom has run 13 marathons and climbed seven high-altitude mountains!
Her determination and perseverance to see a better, more inclusive world has made her a great model to girls and women everywhere!
Fatou Bensouda, Gambia
Fatou Bensouda is a Gambian lawyer known for her international work. In 2021, she stepped down after a nine-year mandate as the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). She had previously served as a Deputy Prosecutor in charge of the Prosecutions Division of the ICC and as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of The Gambia.
Bensouda is a member of the International Gender Champions (IGC), a network of leaders of member states, international organizations, and civil society working for gender equality. She has received multiple awards for her contributions to criminal law both at the national and international level including the 2009 ICJ International Jurists Award and the 2011 World Peace Through Law Award.
Bensouda has been listed as one of BBC's 100 Women and one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time. She went into law because she saw that there weren’t a lot of women in the field despite the many issues affecting women and children and wanted to play a role in serving this population.
From justice to entertainment, these are just some of the African women who have and continue to shake things up and change the world for the better! Their life’s work is inspiring to anyone because it shows us we can make an impact in any corner of the world we find ourselves in.