It is wonderful to see the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for her work on women's rights.
International health charity Merlin has been working in Liberia since 1997 and as their chief executive I was fortunate enough to meet with her last year on a trip with Professor Parveen Kumar, President of the Royal Society of Medicine, and Esther McVey MP for Wirral West - two other incredible women.
As Africa's first democratically elected female president, President Johnson-Sirleaf has earned her title as 'Liberia's Iron Lady', using her credentials as a former World Bank and Citigroup economist to persuade Liberia's creditors to waive nearly all of the country's debilitating foreign debt.
Her brains were never in question yet it is in her determination to reform the country's shattered health system that she has proved she has heart as well, showing time and again how passionately she cares about the rights and welfare of her people. This award, shared with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work," is hugely deserved.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's commitment to improving the health of her people has been clear from the start. She placed health care and education as the bedrock of the country's revival, showed strong leadership in the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. She has also been unswervingly committed to increasing the number of Liberia's health workers.
But it is in her work improving the health care for mothers and children that she has excelled the most: putting maternal health issues on the international stage and instituting free health care for the most vulnerable. Don't get me wrong, there is still a long way to go, but since coming to power in 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has helped Liberia come on in leaps and bounds.
Merlin's first encounter with the Liberian president came in 2006 when she travelled across the country to officially dedicate the hospital that Merlin and the Grand Bassa County Health team had lovingly restored. She also personally thanked Merlin, describing our relationship with the local health team as a model that should be implemented throughout Liberia. When Merlin first arrived there just three years earlier, rebels were still fighting in the streets, nearly every health clinic had been looted and many had stopped functioning altogether. Yet by the end of 2005, thanks to our close collaboration with the county health team, the hospital had treated around 60,000 people, delivered 626 babies, and saved countless lives.
This was just one of our many shared achievements. It was a similar story at JJ Dossen hospital in Harper in the far south-east of the country. Following 14 years of neglect during the civil war, many of the wards were closed and cluttered with broken equipment and most of the qualified health personnel had fled. Recognising the chronic need for rehabilitation, Merlin began to renovate the buildings, to bring in new equipment and medical supplies and to recruit more staff and on January 8, 2006, the hospital was officially re-opened, with all services fully functional and free of charge. It was as a result of these achievements and many others that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf recommended Merlin for the world's largest humanitarian award established by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
Today, Liberia is a much more stable country, but Merlin is still on hand to respond to emergencies, including the refugee crisis sparked by the disputed elections in neighbouring Ivory Coast at the beginning of the year.
As the results of the 2011 election begin to emerge, Ellen and Liberia are about to embark on the next step in their future. But whatever the outcome, Merlin is committed to doing everything in our power to save lives and improve the health of a wonderful nation.