Thursday, April 28, 2016

Leymah Gbowee, Liberian Peace Activist

Photographed by Mambu Bayoh
Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, social worker, and women's rights advocate who began a movement in Liberia to end that nation's civil war.

"It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would – unafraid because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us. It is about how we found the moral clarity, persistence, and bravery to raise our voices against war and restore sanity to our land." ~ Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee was born on February 1st 1972 in Monrovia, Liberia, and was seventeen when the Liberian civil war started.

The war turned her, in her own words, "from a child to an adult in a matter of hours." She witnessed the terrors of civil war; women getting raped, children starving, and becoming soldiers. Entire villages were decimated, villagers lost their limbs

As the war raged on, Leymah became a single mother and had her first four children by the age of 24. By that time she was working as a research assistant, and eventually a social worker. After each of her children were born she would go straight back to work. She described herself as being "dirt poor, living with my parents," but she still showed compassion any way she could, buying second-hand clothes for abandoned children she met in different villages where she worked; children than had no clothes or toys.

At some point during the civil war, Leymah realized that if anything was to be done to restore peace to the country, it was up to the women. In every village she visited, Leymah met intelligent, strong women who were tired of watching their children be raped and murdered - surely if all these women could be brought together, they could enact change - this became Leymah's hope and dream.

Leymah recognized that the biggest divider of women in the community was not physical space or walls, but their beliefs and religion. There were 16 ethnic groups and 2 main religious groups - Christian and Muslim - and as in the rest of the world, there were undertones of conflict tied to religion running through society, which did nothing for community stability when it came to other issues.

Leymah knew the community would have to be united if they were to have a chance to build peace. She was a Christian, so she started by meeting with women of the Christian religion.

The women began by meeting in groups and talking about their religion and the ways women had played a part in their history. "A lot of the times, people use religion as a means of disempowering women," noted Leymah. "But if you go into the Qur’anic text and even in the Bible, you’ll find there were some great women. So we use the examples of those very great women to talk about how they helped to change their time."

Once they had re-conceptualized the role of women in the community using religious history as examples, Leymah's message of women as powerful drivers of change resonated more, and the women were more willing to meet and demonstrate together in a non-violent way.

After gaining the support of the Christian women, Leymah enlisted a Muslim friend to help her build a Muslim coalition along the same lines as the Christian group, and she founded an unprecedented coalition called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.

With Leymah as the spokesperson, the women began a weeks-long campaign for peace that grew to include thousands of participants.

The women knew that their plea for peace had to be non-violent, for over 14 years of civil war, the only different tactics that had been tried was that different groups of fighters were sent in - so much so that by the end, over 12 different groups had fought in the war against the government. The tactic of more guns or different armies had not been working, so the women knew they must try a non-violent tact.

In addition to this, the women were inspired by the civil war movement of the United States, and the actions of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. Though the civil rights movement in the U.S. had been the work of many, those were the names that Leymah knew, and their stories of protest in the face of what seemed insurmountable odds encouraged her.

The women of Liberia protested by doing sit-ins, what Leymah referred to as an "invasion of places" where women would not usually be found. The women invited the President of Liberia, President Charles Taylor, to meet with them many times, but he would never answer.

One one occasion the group sent six invitations through six different contact points to ensure that one was received (and to decreased the likelihood that the President would claim he never received it), but while the invitations were delivered, he did not answer, as he did not know how to respond.

But the women continued protesting, staging sit-ins in local marketplaces, disrupting events but always in a non-violent capacity as they demanded that the President meet with them. When this did not get the response they wanted, the women tried a different tact: having grown frustrated with their husbands over what they saw as a complete unwillingness to say anything about Liberia's civil war, the women decided to go on strike and stop having sex.

"We were constantly trying to imagine strategies that would be effective. The men in our society were really not taking a stance... We decided to do a sex strike to kind of propel these silent men into action," said Leymah.

It was an unconventional tactic, but one the women were willing to try to get a response from their otherwise silent husbands. In addition to getting the attention of their husbands, it was also the media's attention the women wanted - as before all this happened, they were barely getting any coverage from local media at all.

The sex strike was very effective in that capacity, as Leymah describes: "People wanted to know who were these women to even dare their husbands or the men, who are supposed to be in power, to say they won’t give sex because of the war. The international media wanted to know: How can you refuse sex, when rape is the order of the day in your culture, in your society?

"So, all of these lingering questions made it a very good strategy for talking about, because every time we went to do press and they wanted to know about this sex strike, we had to go about every other reason why we were doing it before this, so it became a very good media strategy for the work that we were doing at the time."

Marching to the President

After putting them off on many occasions, President Taylor finally told the women "You can come and see me."

So they marched to the palace which was guarded by many men with guns, and all the while Leymah wondered if it was a test, to see if the women would have enough courage to go forward. But 2,000 women turned up to march to the President, all wearing their white tee-shirts to show they were united.

The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace march to the President
The women marched towards the palace, a sea of white tee-shirts. But when they got there, says Leymah:

"All of a sudden, we get a call from in his office that he’s not feeling well and that he will see only 10 of us. And I was really furious. I said, 'No, if he can’t come to see all of us, we will leave.' And his guards were like, 'Who is this woman, who is just really too militant for her own good?'"

Eventually President Taylor came out and met with the women, and listened to their demands: that a  cease-fire be called immediately, and that he attend the peace talks with the region's other leaders, the warlords, so they could build a plan for peace going forward.

President Taylor agreed to this, so the women returned from the palace and began establishing talks with the war lords, making preparations so the peace talks that were supposed to occur in some weeks time would actually happen.

Peace Talks

The formal peace talks were in Accra, Ghana. To ensure the peace talks went through without a hitch, the women of Liberia marched to the meeting rooms in Ghana, and when the process began to stall, the women locked arms and barricaded the doors to the meeting halls, telling the men they would not be allowed to leave to get food or water until they came to an agreement.

When security forces on the grounds attempted to arrest Leymah, she threatened to disrobe, an act that according to local tradition would have brought terrible misfortune on the men. The tactic worked and was effective in preventing the soldiers from arresting Leymah.

In Accra, protesting for peace. They would not retreat.
Photo by Pewee Flomoku
The women had made their position clear: peace was what they wanted, and within two weeks the men had come to an agreement.

President Taylor resigned from the Presidency and went into exile; he would later be tried in court for crime against his people and sentenced to fifty years in jail. He remains there still.

The Future of Liberia

For Leymah, the end of civil war in Liberia was a triumph, but it was really just the beginning. Everywhere she looked in Liberia there were smart, sharp women, and women and girls in need - and they were one and the same. She began turning her attention to other crises in the community, such as rape, prostitution, and teenage pregnancy.

With other members of the community, Leymah started creating spaces and groups where it was safe for girls to meet and talk with other women and get the resources they need. In 2006, she co-founded the Women Peace and Security Network Africa in Accra and served as the Executive Director for six years. The group is a women-focused, women-led organization dedicated to promoting the participation and leadership of women in peace and security governance around the continent.

Leymah speaking to a group of women in Congo, 2010. Photo by Alissa Everet.
Leymah is the recipient of many awards for her activism and vision. These include the 2009 Gruber Prize for Women's Rights, the 2009 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, the 2010 John Jay Medal for Justice. 

Her highest honor came in 2011 however, when she was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with two other female activists, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman.

Speaking with the New York Times after receiving this honor, Leymah said "This whole process of three women receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is really overwhelming. It’s finally a recognition that we can’t ignore the other half of the world’s population. We cannot ignore their unique skills.”

Leymah has written a memoir describing her life in war-torn Liberia called "Mighty Be Our Powers," and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast website. You can see a collection of her articles here. She continues to organize and speak out for the young girls of Africa to this day.


"Don't wait for a Gandhi, don't wait for a King, don't wait for a Mandela. You are your own Mandela, you are your own Gandhi, you are your own King."

"When women gather, great things will happen."

"I always tell people, anger is like liquid. It's fluid, it's like water. You put it in a container and it takes the shape of that container. So many people you see in prison, unleashing war on their people, they are angry, and they take their anger and put it into a violent container."

"The one thing I have never been afraid of is standing before important people and speaking my mind. I represent women who may never have the opportunity to go to the UN or meet with a president. I'm never afraid to speak truth to power."

"It's insulting when outsiders come in and tell a traumatized people what it will take for them to heal... People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked. That includes women. Most especially women."

"Sometimes, people call my way of speaking ranting. Why are you always ranting and screaming, they ask. But here’s the thing…the reason why I rant is because I am a voice for many women that cannot speak out to heads of state, UN officials, and those that influence systems of oppression. And so I rant. And I will not stop ranting until my mission of equality of all girls is achieved."

"We must continue to unite in sisterhood to turn our tears into triumph. There is no time to rest until our world achieves wholeness and balance, where all men and women are considered equal and free."

  • 5 of my Favorite Women Human Rights Activists for International Women's Day, Jaime, Autostraddle, 8 2012
  • Leymah Ghowee - Mighty Be Our Powers, Lehmay Gbowee, Beast Books. 2016.
  • Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, Alan Cowell, New York Times, October 7, 2011
  • A Crazy Dream, Bob Herbert, The New York Times, January 31st, 2009.
  • How a Sex Strike  Propelled Men to Refuse War, April 27th, 2015.

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