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A chat with Liberia’s ‘Iron Lady’ about Ebola, health and women’s empowerment

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf greets the crowd in Seattle. Keith Walters, Center for Infectious Disease Research

For the Humanosphere podcast this week, we talk with Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, world-renowned as the first democratically elected woman president in Africa and as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Sirleaf was in Seattle to speak at the annual gala held by the Center for Infectious Disease Research, formerly known as Seattle Biomed, an organization known for its leadership on malaria, HIV and TB research as well as pioneers of the still relatively new strategy of inquiry known as systems biology.

Most people wanted to hear from Sirleaf her thoughts on the Ebola outbreak that has wreaked havoc on her nation, as well as neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea. Liberia, though hardest hit by the deadly epidemic, arguably eventually did a better job of containing it. So we talk to Madame President, aka Liberia’s Iron Lady, about mistakes made, lessons learned and what she still wants to see from the international community to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again. As we reported earlier on Humanosphere, Sirleaf thinks we need to stop chasing, reactively, after diseases and focus on the basics.

But what Sirleaf is really known for worldwide is women’s empowerment. That’s what she won the Nobel Peace Prize for and what she will be remembered for, once this particular Ebola crisis slips from the news radar. We talk with her as well about why empowering girls and women is critical to making lasting progress against poverty and inequity.

Our normal podcast host (though perhaps ‘normal’ is not the right word) Gabe Spitzer is off this week, so as Humanosphere’s social media maven and assistant podcast producer I (Imana) talked with executive editor Tom Paulson about some news highlights. Of interest was a post by Tom Murphy bouncing off a report revealing that American corporations are avoiding something like $2.1 trillion in taxes by offshoring financial assets. That, as Murphy reports hurts poor people most.

I was especially interested in the story about three bad-ass young women activists who are working, under very difficult circumstances, to advance human rights and women empowerment. Finally, we highlight a story filed by our new West Africa correspondent, Cooper Inveen, on the negative impact the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone has had on education.

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About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or