Zainab Hawa Bangura was born in 1959 to a family of limited means in the small town of Yonibana in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province. She received a scholarship from Mathora Girls Secondary School near the town of Magburaka and graduated from the Annie Walsh Girls Secondary School in the capital city of Freetown. After obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and History from the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College in 1983, she earned advanced diplomas in Insurance Management from two UK-based institutions, Nottingham University in Nottingham and the City University Business School of London. By the time she had reached her early 30s, Ms. Bangura was the Vice President of one of Sierra Leone’s largest insurance companies.
In the early 1990s, when Sierra Leone was being ruled by a military junta, Ms. Bangura became a social activist. As the daughter of a market woman, Ms. Bangura started raising consciousness among urban market women. In 1994 she founded Women Organized for a Morally Enlightened Nation (WOMEN), the first non-partisan women’s rights group in the country. In 1995, she co-founded the Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) and successfully campaigned for the holding of national elections. In 1996 Sierra Leone held its first free and fair elections in 25 years. Many in the country credited Ms. Bangura with restoring democracy.
During Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991–2002) Ms. Bangura spoke out against the atrocities committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the corruption of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah’s soldiers. She was targeted for assassination several times by the RUF. In 2002 she became the first woman in Sierra Leone to run for the presidency, but her Movement for Progress (MOP) party secured very few votes against Kabbah and failed to gain any seats in Sierra Leone’s parliament. Ms. Bangura believed that corruption in the voting system had led to her party’s dramatic loss, but others suggest that it was her intent to ban the widespread practice of female genital cutting that caused her party to lose favor.
Ms. Bangura went on to found the National Accountability Group (NAG) to fight corruption and promote transparency and accountability in government. In 2006 she was appointed the Director of the Civil Affairs Office in the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). The position placed her in charge of the reconstruction of 16 Liberian ministries and 30 government agencies and enabled her to work with a woman she greatly admired, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state.
In 2007, Ms. Bangura returned to Sierra Leone where she was named Foreign Minister by President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC), the second woman to hold that position. From 2010 to 2012 Ms. Bangura served as President Koroma’s Minister of Health and Sanitation. In mid-2012, she was appointed as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Ms. Bangura has been the recipient of several international awards for her role in the promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa, including: the African International Award of Merit for Leadership (1999); the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights Human Rights Award (2000); the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Bayard Rustin Humanitarian Award (2002), the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award (2006) and Project 1808 Inc.’s award in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s African Studies Program (2013).
Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why has Zainab Bangura and her human rights advocacy been so successful?
Some key characteristics come to mind:
Ms. Bangura is WILLING TO SPEAK UP against what she views as wrong with the world, even when doing so draws negative attention including threats of violence. She also does not fear to challenge what is customary or popular and believes that anything is possible, including a female becoming President.
Ms. Bangura is an advocate against evil and a champion of human rights without regard to race, gender, religion, or ethnic background. She is a devote Muslim who took time off from politics in 2009 to participate in the Hajj pilgrimage ceremony in the holy city of Mecca, but Ms. Bangura has been speaking out against atrocities committed by Muslims that are members of ISIS (ISIL). She has done so on numerous occasions before the UN and last week on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square on CNN.