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This edition: 2014-2 | All editions

Leymah Gbowee: The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

Leymah Gbowee was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1972. She attended private school, served in the student council and dreamed of being a doctor. In 1989, The First Liberian Civil War broke out, throwing the country into chaos, and shattering her dreams. Thousands of people were killed and many women were violated. So Leymah fled with her mother and sisters on a boat to Ghana. She almost starved to death in the refugee camp, and she decided to return to Liberia.

As the war subsided,” Leymah says, “I learned about a program run by UNICEF training people to be social workers who would then counsel those traumatized by war.” This course helped Leymah make a link between the violence she had suffered in her own home in a series of abusive relationships and the violence other women suffered in the war at the hands of both the government and guerilla militias. Out of this sense of solidarity, Leymah’s struggle for peace and justice was born.

Leymah Gbowee: The Women  of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

Leymah Gbowee - Photo: Erik F Brandsborg - Aktiv

An Associate of Arts degree followed, alongside volunteer work with the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP), a program operating out of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia which she had attended as a teenager, and that had been active in peace efforts ever since the civil war started. Her first task was rehabilitating former child soldiers.

In 1999, The Second Liberian Civil War broke out. Faced with another “boys’” war, Leymah realised “if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers”.

Her supervisor at THRP, whom she calls “BB”, encouraged Leymah to study peacebuilding, starting with John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, the works of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Hizkias Assefa (an Ethiopian conflict and reconciliation advocate). BB also introduced her to the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP).

Through WANEP, Leymah met Thelma Ekiyor of Nigeria, who was “well educated, a lawyer who specialized in alternative dispute resolution”. Thelma told Leymah of her idea to start a women's organisation. “Thelma was a thinker, a visionary, like BB. But she was a woman, like me.”

Within a year, Thelma had managed to get the funding from WANEP to set up the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) and Leymah had taken on the unpaid position of the WIPNET leader in Liberia.

In 2002, with her five children (including an adopted daughter) living in Ghana under her sister's care, Leymah spent her days working on trauma-healing and her evenings working on peacebuilding. Falling asleep in the WIPNET office one night, she (had) a dream where she says God had told her, "Gather the women and pray for peace!"

So Leymah ran a training session and began organising a peace prayer campaign. Because the war was being fought between a so-called “Christian” President and a so-called “Muslim” opposition, Leymah, a Christian, intentionally collaborated with Asatu, a Muslim woman. They started going to mosques, markets and churches regularly every week.

Working across religious lines, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace “started with a few local women praying and singing in a fish market” and eventually became a mass movement of thousands of Christian and Muslim women gathering in Monrovia for months. Muslims and Christians, they sat together in defiance of Charles Taylor (the President) and prayed for peace. To stand out, they wore white t-shirts and head scarves.

...there's no way that anyone can take this journey as a peacebuilder, as an agent of change in your community, without having a sense of faith... As I continue this journey in this life, I remind myself: All that I am, all that I hope to be, is because of God.

They handed out flyers, which 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!" Some flyers had only simple drawings, designed for the many women who could not read.

They staged protests, which included the threat of a sex strike – saying that as many of them as they could would refuse to have sex with their partners until they stopped fighting, laid down their weapons and made peace. Leymah says: "The [sex] strike lasted, on and off, for a few months. It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention."

On April 23, 2003, Taylor finally granted the women, more than 2000 of them, a hearing. Leymah was the person designated to speak for them. She said: “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?’"

Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’

Their role that day was to pressure the President into promising to attend peace talks in Ghana. And they succeeded.

But the peace talks in Ghana dragged on for months without any progress. The killing, looting and raping continued unabated in Liberia. So Leymah led a group of hundreds of Liberian women (many of them refugees in Ghana) to hold a sit-in at the hotel where the talks were being held, holding signs screaming silently:  "Butchers and murderers of the Liberian people – STOP!"

The women said they would stay sitting in the hallway, holding the delegates "hostage" until a peace agreement was reached. General Abubakar (a former president of Nigeria) who proved to be sympathetic to the women, announced with some amusement: "The peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops." When the men tried to leave the hall, Leymah and her allies threatened to rip their clothes off: "In Africa, it's a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself." With Abubakar's support, the women remained sitting outside the negotiating room during the following days, ensuring that the "atmosphere at the peace talks changed from circus-like
to somber".

The Liberian war ended officially weeks later, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003. "But what we [women] did marked the beginning of the end."

As part of the peace agreement the President, Charles Taylor, was sent into exile. And, as a result of the women’s movement, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated as the first elected woman President in Africa.

In 2011, Leymah and Ellen were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (with Tawakei Karmen) for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peacebuilding work.

Leymah “has continued her work in peace and conflict resolution, and is now leading the Liberia Reconciliation Initiative, one of the six coordinating organisations that created and guides the roadmap of resolution. She is the President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, based in Monrovia, and also serves as the Executive Director of Women, Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa).”

Leymah’s story is told in the award-winning 2008 documentary Pray The Devil Back To Hell.

All quotes are taken from the autobiography “Mighty Be Our Powers”.

Dave Andrews is TEAR Australia’s Community Empowerment, Exposure and Training Officer.


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