For centuries, people of color, primarily Black Africans — have been marginalized on the world stage.
Until the mid-20th century, when nationalist voices first started to become amplified, they were mainly viewed as objects of slavery. Among those early nationalists were prominent women, including Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Margaret Ekpo and Yaa Asantewa.
Now decades later, Black African women working hard to solidify the legacies of these women through intelligent activism and prolific leadership. No longer needing to shatter the fragile glass ceiling of yesteryear, they are fighting to destroy today’s obsolete status quo.
Below is our list of 10 of the most distinguished African women on the global stage. The list is not all-inclusive: they were selected based on their track records, global impact and responsibilities.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)
Designation: Director-General of the World Trade Organization
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian-American economist who became the first woman and African to serve as director-general of the World Trade Organization.
She is a fair trade leader, environmental sustainability advocate, human welfare champion, sustainable finance expert and global development expert.
Okonjo-Iweala was appointed as co-chair, alongside Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Lawrence Summers, of the high-level independent panel on financing the global commons for pandemic preparedness and response, which was established by the G20 early this year.
In July 2021, she joined the Multilateral Leaders Task Force on COVID-19 Vaccines, Therapeutics, and Diagnostics for Developing Countries, co-chaired by Tedros Adhanom and David Malpass.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia)
Designation: Former Liberian President
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. She was the first elected female head of state in Africa.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize given her consistent efforts to bring women into the peacekeeping process in 2011 and the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership in 2017.
Internationally known as “Africa’s Iron Lady,” Sirleaf is a leading promoter of freedom, peace, justice, women’s empowerment and democratic rule.
Last year, she founded the Amujae Initiative, which aims to shift the landscape for women in public leadership in Africa, moving from a culture of tokenism to one that genuinely values women leaders.
She sits on the board of several organizations, including the Mastercard Foundation.
Amina Mohammed (Nigeria)
Designation: Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations
Amina Jane Mohammed is a Nigerian diplomat and politician serving as the fifth deputy secretary-general of the United Nations.
She was Nigerian minister of environment from 2015 to 2016 and was a key player in the Post-2015 Development Agenda process.
Valentina Mintah (Ghana)
Designation: Board Member of International Chamber of Commerce
Valentina Mintah is the first black woman to sit on the board of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).
She founded West Blue Company, an ICT company that created technological systems that have helped save African governments, including Nigeria and Ghana, millions of dollars in annual revenues.
The Ghanaian technology executive is responsible for developing and implementing ICC strategy, policy and actions, and overseeing the organization’s financial affairs.
Ilhan Omar (Somalia)
Designation: U.S. Congresswoman
Ilhan Omar is a former Somali refugee who now serves as the first Somali-American in Congress. She is one of the first Muslim-American women to serve in Congress after being elected in January 2019.
Her election to the House of Representatives resulted in Congress changing its rules regarding headwear as she wears a hijab.
Omar serves as the whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She has advocated for a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, student loan debt forgiveness, the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Aya Chebbi (Tunisia)
Designation: Special African Union Envoy on Youth
Aya Chebbi is a Tunisian diplomat and a pan-African and feminist activist. She became the first appointed African Union envoy on youth in November 2018.
She was appointed the youngest senior official in the AU’s history in November 2018 by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki.
Chebbi is co-founder of the Voice of Women Initiative.
Rasha Kelej (Egypt)
Designation: CEO of Merck Foundation
Rashes Kelej is an Egyptian Senator, businesswoman and philanthropist.
She is passionate about women’s empowerment, providing them with better access to healthcare in African and other developing countries.
In 2016, 20 years after joining Merck KGaA, a German-based pharmaceutical multinational, she became the CEO of its philanthropic arm, Merck Foundation.
Her “More than a Mother Campaign” is helping to destigmatize women living with infertility in Africa, while training fertility experts across the continent.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an globally renowned author of Nigerian descent.
She uses her writings to express her views on gender construction and sexuality and the underrepresentation of various cultures and history.
Her 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” has become one of the most-viewed TED Talks of all time with more than 27 million views.
Her work has been translated into over 30 languages.
Tlaleng Mofokeng (South Africa)
Designation: UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Health
Tlaleng Mofokeng is a medical doctor and sexual and reproductive health and rights activist. She is passionate about quality access to sexual and reproductive health services.
In 2020, she was appointed as the UN special rapporteur on the right to health, the first African woman to take on the role.
She currently runs a sexual health clinic in Sandton, South Africa.
Fatou Bom Bensouda (Gambia)
Designation: Newly Retired ICC Prosecutor
Fatou Bom Bensouda is a Gambian lawyer and served as the country’s former miner of justice between 1998 and 2000.
She was the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court from June 2012 until June 2021. Earlier, she served as a deputy prosecutor in charge of the ICC Prosecutions Division from 2004 to 2012.
During her tenure, the court brought to justice and booked many individuals for crimes against humanity, including former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.