Hey ladies, it turns out Beyonce was right – girls really DO run the world, literally! There is a growing list of female heads of state around the world and we firmly believe this is going to dramatically shift the balance of power in many ways. In the continent of Africa, to date there has only been a total of 8 heads of state (Africa has 54 countries in total) including the latest – Mauritius president Ameenah Firdaus Gurib-Fakin who was elected to the position mid-2015.
Her journey to the presidency was not as rigorous as others (certainly not like the US presidential candidacy we are currently watching!) as the outgoing President resigned, and Ameenah was nominated to take over the position by the country’s Prime Minister.
But don’t be under any impression that she was just handed a position she is not qualified for. In fact, there are multiple high-ranking positions that President Gurib-Fakin is eligible for. Apart from being a literal world leader, she is also a world-renowned scientist.
The 55 year old is a chemistry professor who began her career as a Lecturer at the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Mauritius. She also served as the Dean of the Faculty of Science and Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Mauritius from 2004 to 2010, and has a Ph.D in Organic Chemistry from the University Exeter, UK. But wait, there’s more!
Gurib-Fakim is a member of the Royal Society Chemistry, International Union Pure and Applied Chemistry and the Third World Academy Sci. In 1989, she was awarded the C.Chem award by the Royal Society of Chemistry in recognition of her skills and contribution to the field. She has written and co-edited 26 books, apart from numerous articles in the field of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.
She has served as the Managing Director of the Centre for Phototherapy and Research and Professor of Organic Chemistry with an endowed chair at the University of Mauritius. Ameenah is the first scientist to do the complete mapping of the country’s medicinal and aromatic plants, and as such was 1 of 5 researchers nominated to receive the 2007 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award.
So what does being a badass scientist have to do with government? Well if you are aware of the growing threat of climate change and the need to make drastic changes in order to protect and preserve what is left of the world’s natural resources, you will know these two go hand in hand.
An interesting fact about Mauritius, it is one of the richest and least corrupt countries in Africa, a middle-income country of some 1.3 million people with a per capita GDP of just over $9,000. However there are areas in the economy which need improving, and in an interview with Discover-Her.com, Ameenah says she is excited about the challenge of now being a political leader despite not coming from a traditional political background in order to help tackle the problems Mauritians do face.
“Courageous decisions must be made so that the economy can diversity itself and create more jobs, especially among the younger sections of the population. Being a very distant island can be a challenge, but I think that this also converts itself into opportunities,” she said.
The decision to nominate her to the presidency came after she delivered a stunning TED Talk in Brazil in 2014 about the importance of protecting plant life. In the video below, she talks about three species of plant in particular that could change the biodiversity landscape dramatically. The Benjoin plant could hold the key to treating asthma, the Baobab tree is an under-utilized food source in West Africa and can have a major impact on the problem of food insecurity throughout Africa, and a weed called Centella was instrumental in providing a solution to leprosy.
In her talk she emphasizes why the knowledge of science and biology is crucial to our future.
“We don’t realize how valuable and precious these resources are. And yet, we keep on destroying them. We’re all familiar with the macro impact of urbanization, climate change, resource exploitation. But when that last plant, or animal, has disappeared from the face of this earth, we would [lose] an entire subset of the earth’s biology,” she explained.
“With that, important plants for medicinal potential, or which would have ingredients that would speak to the cosmetic, nutrition, pharma, and even the ethno-veterinarian sectors, will be gone forever.”
However, Ameenah never dreamed her expertise would lead to a job in the highest office in her country, but she believes the Mauritian government wanted someone who would steer the country in a different direction.
“I think that the party wanted a new face, someone who was not part of the political scenario, but someone internationally known, who was also a woman and a Muslim,” she said. Islam is a minority religion in the Mauritius islands, making up only 17% of its population.
She hopes to now use her knowledge to help shape policy and ideas that benefit the environment.
“I still continue to contribute in various ways to strengthen science, also by creating specific policies and by bringing certain topics to the spotlight of discussions. But I strongly believe that science, technology and innovation are the tools to create wealth and opportunities, and I will use my position to ensure the creation of a favorable environment for this to happen,” she said.
Of course she can’t escape questions about the elephant in the room – being the first female president of the country. Her thoughtful, yet short answer, to a question about whether she is a feminist shows she is quite aware of its significance.
“If my position as a scientist and a president can serve to the cause and encourage other women to follow these paths, then yes, I am a feminist!” she declared.
So now that we have that out of the way, hear for yourself what makes President Ameenah Firdaus Gurib-Fakin a world leader to take note of, especially as we look to the future of the world after 158 countries signed in the United Nations Climate Change Conference agreement in December 2015, pledging to each do their part to limit global warming and harmful emissions that are damaging our natural biodiversity.
It has never been a more crucial time to have world leaders that fundamentally understand the impact of science and biology. And of course, it’s a huge bonus that Mauritius’ president is now a woman!