Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking his feminist credentials to Africa this week in what will be his first official visit to the continent. 

Trudeau is headed to la Francophonie summit in Madagascar with a quick stopover in Monrovia, Liberia, Thursday, where he will meet with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to talk about women's rights and gender equality.

"We want to strengthen relations with our African partners and advance issues such as the rights of women and girls, gender equality, health and peace and security," Trudeau said in a statement issued before his departure this afternoon. 

Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state, shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work to recognize women's rights and building peace.

In addition to speaking with Sirleaf, Trudeau will visit a local school and participate in a meeting focused on the role of women in peace, governance, education and sustainable development across the continent.

"We need to really make sure that women are included. Many women in Africa and many other places are still suffering from illiteracy, are excluded," said Evelyne Guindon, chief executive officer of CUSO International, a non-governmental organization that has been working in Africa for more than 50 years.

Trudeau and Sirleaf

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will meet to talk about women's rights and gender equality. (Scott Applewhite/Associated Press Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Under the previous Conservative government, Canada focused much of its efforts in Africa on trade and foreign investment as well as child, newborn and maternal health.

Progress on justice, but more to do

"We've seen child survival rates improve and we're doing some great work in women's health. The importance of working on the whole spectrum of women's health and working in reproductive health is extremely important," Guindon said, placing emphasis on the words "whole spectrum," which means contraception and, in some cases, safe abortions.

While groups such as Amnesty International have applauded Liberia for setting up a special court for gender and sexual violence cases, it has called the justice system under-resourced and corrupt. Liberia's decision to reintroduce the death penalty in 2008 has also been widely condemned, as have its laws criminalizing same-sex relationships.

Canada provides tens of millions of dollars in development funds to Liberia every year to support education, food security, the environment and health services such as HIV and tuberculosis drugs.

During the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus, which the World Health Organization declared over in January 2016, Canada provided $130 million to help Liberia as well as its affected neighbours Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Security expected to dominate la Francophonie summit

After one day in Liberia, Trudeau heads to Antananarivo, Madagascar, for the summit of la Francophonie, an international organization made up of many French-speaking nations, which is now headed by Canada's former governor general Michaëlle Jean.

Trudeau will deliver a speech focused on the empowerment of women and girls, as well as gay and transgender rights. Canada is also putting the final touches on a joint resolution with the nation of Benin to put an end to forced and child marriages, an issue that was also championed by the previous government.

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Former governor general Michaëlle Jean is the head of la Francophonie, an international organization made up of many French-speaking nations. (Canadian Press)

Officials who briefed reporters in advance of the trip added that Trudeau will also promote efforts to address climate change. That's an issue of great importance for the host island nation, where the United Nations World Food Program estimates 900,000 Malagasy in the south of the country are currently going hungry due to a three-year drought.

Security threats

Terrorism is a growing concern for many of the larger members of la Francophonie.

"There's been numerous terrorist attacks not only in France and Belgium, but also if you look at Mali, if you look at Chad, Burundi. Questions of security, questions of responding to Daesh and its affiliates in Africa are going to be, I'm sure, going to be fairly prominent in the discussions," said University of Montreal Prof. David Meren.

It is likely that Canada will be pressed for more details on where in Africa it plans to deploy hundreds of Canadian peacekeepers and police. The leading candidates are thought to be Mali, Congo and the Central African Republic. 

The prime minister's trip follows visits to Africa by his ministers of defence, global affairs and international development. A senior government official who spoke to reporters on background said Canada continues to review its policies for international assistance and defence on the continent.