Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist responsible for leading a women’s peace movement that helped to bring about the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. This peace movement led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and made Liberia the first African nation to elect a female president. In 2011 along with Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for or their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.
So if you don’t know much about the Liberian Civil War, it lasted from 1989 to 2003 with only brief interruptions, and was the result of several factors–economic inequality, a struggle to control natural resources, and deep-rooted rivalries among various ethnic groups, particularly among the descendants of the freed American slaves who founded the country in 1847. The war involved the use of child soldiers, armed with lightweight Kalashnikovs, against the country’s civilian population. At the center of it all was Charles Taylor, the ruthless warlord who initiated the first fighting and would eventually serve as Liberian president until he was forced into exile in 2003.
Leymah Gbowee was born in central Liberia on February 1, 1972. At the age of 17, she was living with her parents and two of her three sisters when the First Liberian Civil War erupted in 1989, throwing the country into bloody chaos until 1996. After the initial onslaught Gbowee learned of a program run by UNICEF that trained people to be social workers to aid in counseling those traumatized by war. After her three-month training she realized her own abuse by the father of her two young children, and seeking a better life for her family followed her partner to Ghana where she and her family lived as homeless refugees. She fled with her by then three children back to the chaos of Liberia where the rest of her family still lived. In 1998, in an effort to further her education in social work, she began volunteering with the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program run out of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia where she had spent most of her teenage years. This social work put her on the path to being a peace activist. As she worked towards her degree, she applied her training in trauma healing and reconciliation in trying to rehabilitate some of the ex-child soldier of Charles Taylor’s army. She realized that women–mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives were vitally necessary if any changes were to be made in their current society. As a now mother of four, Gbowee knew she needed to rally the women of Liberia to stop the violence that was destroying their children.
By the spring of 2002, Gbowee was spending her days practicing trauma-healing work and her evenings as an unpaid leader of WIPNET (Women in Peace Building Program). According to Gbowee, one night after falling asleep in the WIPNET office she awoke from a dream in which God had told her to gather the women and pray for peace. Gbowee gathered her allies, including a Mandingo-Muslim woman named Asatu, and began by going to the mosques on Friday at noon after prayers, to the markets on Saturday mornings, and to two churches very Sunday where they passed out flyers that read:
“We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up–you have a voice in the peace process!”
They also handed out flyers with images to convey their message to the large majority of women who are illiterate.
Working across religious and ethnic lines, Gbowee led thousands of Christian and Muslim women to gather in Monrovia for months where they prayed for peace using both Muslim and Christian prayers, and eventually they held nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of the orders from President Charles Taylor. They also gained notoriety for their threat of a curse and a sex strike. Although the sex strike had no practical effect and only lasted in short spurts off and on for a few months, it was extremely valuable in gaining the protests media coverage. In a final, highly risky move, the women occupied a field that had been used for soccer and was beside Tubman Boulevard, the route that Charles Taylor traveled twice a day to and fro Capitol Hill. In order to make themselves more visible, all of the women wore white signifying peace.
Finally, in April 23, 2003 with more than 2,000 women massed outside his executive mansion, Gbowee was granted a hearing by Taylor. At the hearing, although she was positioned to be seen by Tyalor, she directed her words to Grace Minor, the president of the senate and only female government official present. She is quoted as saying in her address:
“We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, “Mama what was your role during the crisis?”
The protest yielded a promise from President Charles Taylor to attend peace talks in Ghana to negotiate with rebels. In June 2003, Gbowee led a delegation of women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace talks. Initially they simply took up residence outside of the hotels where the negotiators met, but as the talks dragged on a violence began to return to Liberia, Gbowee led a couple of hundred women into the hotel where they sat in front of the main entrance to the meeting room. Gbowee passed a message to the lead mediator, General Abubakar (a former president of Nigeria), that the women would interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway, holding the delegates “hostage” until a peace agreement was reached. Abubakar, who proved to be sympathetic to the women. When the men tried to leave the hall, Leymah and her allies threatened to rip their clothes off. (In Africa it is generally considered bad luck to see an elderly or married woman deliberately bare herself). With Abubakar’s support the women remained and the negotiations continued.
A couple of weeks later, the Liberian war ended officially with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003. In addition to bringing and end to 14 years of war in Liberia, the women’s movement also led to the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Although the newly forged peace was a great accomplishment, 14 years of conflict doesn’t disappear overnight. A whole generation of young men didn’t know who they were without a gun in their hands. Several generations of women were widowed, had been raped, seen their daughters and mothers raped, and their children kill and be killed. Neighbors had turned against neighbors; young and old alike had lost hope. Amid the destruction, Gbowee was also appalled by the ignorance and overall cultural insensitivity of the United Nations agencies dispatched to help rehabilitate and rebuild the country. Gbowee wanted and advocated for involving the Liberian civil society and other organizations in restoring the country.
Leymah Gbowee is the narrator and central character in the 2008 documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which consists of scores of film and audio clips from the war period. It took Best Documentary Feature in the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It has been broadcast across the United States as part of the “Women, War & Peace” series, which aired over five successive Tuesdays in October and early November 2011 on public television stations. Pray has been used as an advocacy tool in conflict and post-conflict zones, such as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Africa, Rwanda, Mexico, Kenya, Cambodia, Russia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the West Bank. In the documentary, Gbowee emerges as someone able to laugh and enjoy life, despite what she has lived through. She continues her peace activism to this day.
For more information:
Gbowee, Leymah. Mighty Be Our Powers: A Memoir. New York, Beast Books: 2011.