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“Our Ceiling Has to Be Their Floor” - Fatoumatta Njai & Mabel Sithole on Supporting Women in Leadership

There are those who follow paths and those who carve them. Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the latter. Liberia’s former President and Africa’s first elected female head of state has blazed an indelible trail, sparking millions of women and girls to reimagine their futures and step into leadership roles.

The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development’s (the Center) Amujae Initiative upholds this legacy by preparing women to enter and excel in public leadership. The initiative’s power to inspire can be seen in its staff and participants. Mabel Sithole is the Center’s director of programs, overseeing Amujae. The Honorable Fotoumatta Njai is an Amujae fellow who serves as a member of the National Assembly of The Gambia. 

In 2022, the Center brought together a cohort of women leaders from across Africa, including Njai, at the Bellagio Center to facilitate mentorship and build networks of support to help drive change in their countries.

How does your work help address issues of gender equality and women’s rights?     

Hon. Fatoumatta Njai: In 2016, The Republic of The Gambia was nearing the end of a long dictatorship. They were arresting people rampantly, especially women. I started advocating for a change of government, posting on social media, telling people what was happening. People asked if I was scared and I said, “We have gone past the point where we should be afraid.” When the new government was formed, women were pushed aside, so I ran for an elected seat in the National Assembly – one no woman had held in my lifetime. The ineptitude I saw in my party led me to contest for its leadership. That was when I was admitted as an Amujae fellow.

Mabel Sithole: ‘Amujae’, means ‘we are going up’. Achieving momentum with a collective of women across levels of leadership will create better outcomes for everyone. Having women in the same room allows for new ideas and strategies to be developed and shared across the continent. As we stand together, we become an army that is passionate, visionary, connected, and can’t be overcome. 

Hon. Fatoumatta Njai: Being at the Bellagio Center with the Amujaes made me strong. I left thinking, “We are a team, and none of us should give up.” When the leadership of my party expelled me and tried to revoke my seat in the National Assembly, Amujae’s great women and Madame Sirleaf were shoulders I could lean on. Their support helped me keep my seat and make my voice heard. In 2022, I led the establishment of a committee on gender issues and children’s welfare, something I’d been calling for since 2017. Change might be slow, but when we push hard, it happens. Madame Sirleaf paved the way, making it possible in our minds for women to do this.

  • Change might be slow, but if we push hard, it happens.
    Hon. Fatoumatta Njai
    National Assembly of the Gambia

What breakthroughs are needed to open the doors for and leverage the power of women leaders?  

Mabel Sithole: We have to connect and design strategies collectively. How do we take what we’ve done in one place and scale up? How do we perfect the things we’ve started? The world’s biggest challenges, climate change in particular, require us to think outside the box and learn from what’s happening at the local level in different parts of the world. Amujae shows that bringing people together from different parts of the continent and carefully curating spaces for learning, reflection, and strategy can take us forward. 

Hon. Fatoumatta Njai: Education is key. It gives students independence, confidence, and self-esteem. My foundation, Yayi Denton, helps them finish their education. We identify strengths and build on them. If you can’t get to university, you can get to the Management Development Institute. If you want to be an entrepreneur, it can help you to start something. 

We also have to help women make their voices heard. I tried to pass a bill to enlarge the Parliament and add 16 more seats for women, but it didn’t go through. So I said, “If I cannot make it the law, why don’t I go out there with my influence and help more women run for Parliament?” 

  • The world’s biggest challenges, climate change in particular, require us to think outside the box and learn from what's happening at the local level in different parts of the world.
    Mabel Sithole
    Director of Programs
    Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center on Women and Development

What keeps you up at night about achieving gender equality? What makes you optimistic? 

Mabel Sithole: I’m concerned that Rwanda is the only country in Africa that has broken over the 50% margin for representation. Women are the majority, and the Strategic Development Goals will not be achieved if women are excluded from decision making.

What makes me optimistic is that I have seen what happens when women blaze the trail. Our dream is to support women leaders like Fatoumatta, helping them take on leadership positions, to run and win, and know that they’re not on their own. 

Hon. Fatoumatta Njai: In 2017, seven women contested for the National Assembly. In the last election, there were 19, even though only three were elected. In 2027, I think we can see 30. We may not be at the end of the tunnel, but we are halfway through. Women come up to me on the street, saying, “Auntie Touma, I want to contest. I want to be like you.” 

That makes me optimistic. It’s hard being victimized in Parliament and bullied in the media, but you need to show people that this is possible. Every morning, I wake up, stand tall, walk out my door, and say, “ I can do it. You can do it. All the girls can be me.” That’s what keeps me going. 

To Njai and Sithole, the fight for equality is more than a lifetime commitment. It is something their mothers and grandmothers fought for them and one they fight for the next generation. “We don’t want our daughters to have to break through the same ceilings we are pushing through now,” Njai says. “Our ceiling has to be their floor.”

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Bellagio Perspectives: Gender Equality Issue

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