Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee mobilized women to demand an end to Liberia’s second civil war.
by Robyn Ross
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Topics: Center for International Studies, University Programs
by Robyn Ross
Leymah Gbowee addresses the Columbia Business School Social Enterprise Conference on Oct. 7, 2011, at Columbia University in New York. The address took place after she was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkul Karman. Getty Images © TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP
Between 1989 and 2003, Liberia was embroiled in two civil wars. Young men were conscripted by opposing factions and turned into soldiers who raped women and killed civilians — including children. Thousands of Liberians were displaced or fled to neighboring nations such as Ghana.
In 2002, Leymah Gbowee mobilized women to demand an end to the violence. The social worker and trauma counselor organized Christian and Muslim women who began daily demonstrations for peace in a field near a public market in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.
The coalition in the West African nation grew to more than 2,500 activists and took the name Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. The group successfully pressured then-President Charles Taylor to enter peace talks with rebel forces, which led to Taylor’s exile and a United Nations-supervised election to replace him.
In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia, becoming Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state. In 2011, Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shared with Sirleaf and Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkul Karman.
Today, Gbowee lives in New York with her husband and two youngest children. She is the executive director of the Women, Peace and Security program, launched in 2017, at Columbia University. She has established organizations in Africa that elevate women in the peace-building process and promote education for women and girls.
The 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell and the 2011 memoir Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (Beast Books) tell the story of Gbowee’s campaign for peace.
In October 2017, Liberia held elections for Sirleaf’s successor. A runoff was slated for the top two vote-getters: soccer star George Weah, whose running mate was Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Taylor, and Joseph Boakai, the vice president under Sirleaf. But after the third-place candidate challenged the election results, the runoff was postponed. In late December, Weah was elected president with more than 60 percent of the vote.
In advance of Gbowee’s visit to campus on Feb. 13 to deliver the 2018 Frost Foundation Lectureship for Global Issues, TCU Magazine talked with her about the protests she organized during Liberia’s civil war and her ongoing advocacy for peace and security around the world.
How did you help Liberia prepare for the 2017 election?
For the two months preceding the election last fall, I worked with my foundation and a group of women on a campaign called Sustain the Peace. Women went out every day to distribute flyers with that message, and we showed Pray the Devil Back to Hell to young people to remind them where we came from as Liberians. We reached close to 10,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 25 at university campuses and in communities. A lot of them were just too young to remember and understand why the war happened. I feel like my newest mandate is to begin to nurture the next generation of activists.
What has become of the very young men who perpetrated violence during the second Liberian civil war? You’ve spoken before about how important it is to bring the fighters back into the community, rather than ostracizing or isolating them. Has Liberia been able to do that?
I feel like my newest mandate is to begin to nurture the next generation of activists.Leymah Gbowee
The process is very slow. One of the things that we’re seeing in Liberia is the complexity of the problems that we have as a result of the war, along with recent issues like the 2014 Ebola crisis. Typically, the issues around child soldiers are toward the bottom of humanitarian groups’ list of priorities because people feel that they were perpetrators, so why should we prioritize them? Some of these young people have found their way back into the community, but some are still virtually isolated, especially those who bear marks of war as amputees.
Women are often perceived as victims of war, rather than agents of change, and are left out of the peacemaking process. But you’ve also said that the field of peace and security includes both “the U.N. negotiators in suits” and women who do grass-roots work in their own communities. Can you explain that idea?
People tend to think that security is primarily about guns and the military. But what we’ve seen in communities across the world is that security is about basic human concerns, like food, shelter, clothing and health care. As we were developing the Women, Peace and Security program at Columbia, we brought together a group that included people from academia, people from the U.N. and the World Bank, and activists from different communities.
Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee speaks at the Religions and Practice of Peace Colloquium at Harvard Divinity School in October 2016. Shown, from left: Elizabeth Ruqaiyyah Lee-Hood, research associate; Jeffrey R. Seul, divinity school lecturer; Gbowee; and Melissa Bartholomew, co-founder of Women United for Peace Through Prayer. Courtesy of Harvard Divinity School | Photo by Laura Krueger
We didn’t bring the activists from the U.S. as subjects, we brought them as equal participants around the table. But there was a bit of hesitance among them. One told me she didn’t see where she fit in the peace and security issue because her work was around children. When I asked her more about her work, it turned out to be a school and association that cares for children who have witnessed violence, who are homeless or in need. I told her that it sounded like the same problems that would face a community in Liberia that had gone through war.
The Women, Peace and Security program also will focus on security concerns within the United States. Why is that important?
In this part of the world there’s always a huge assumption that, when it comes to peace and security for women, that’s something needed in the Global South [the developing world] but not here. We think that in the U.S., all is well — but all is not well.
As part of this new program at Columbia, we started a photo-voice project where we gave women in Mozambique cameras to go into their communities and photograph their concept of security. We gave women in East Harlem cameras and said to do the same thing. If you read the accompanying quotes from women in Harlem and women in Mozambique, it’s very difficult for you to see which is which, because a lot of the concerns are the same: safety for children from gun violence, safety from domestic violence.
I don’t want to have a double standard and assume that there are no peace and security concerns in the United States and that we have to keep going to the Global South to find women doing this kind of work. They are doing it here, because it’s necessary.
For example, there is a group of mothers in Chicago [Mothers Against Senseless Killings] who wear pink T-shirts and sit in lawn chairs on their block and watch the neighborhood children as they play. They say that in the three years they’ve been doing this, they’ve seen the rate of violent crime in the surrounding area go down. The point of including these kinds of activism in the Columbia program is to shift the power dynamic so that we realize this kind of work is needed even in the U.S., and to legitimize and recognize the work women are doing here.
The mass action you organized from 2002 to 2003 was notable for many reasons: It involved women, it involved great courage, and it was sustained over time. But the aspect you’ve emphasized is that it brought together women from different ethnic and religious groups. What do you forecast for our ability to cross those lines today, in the context of the tribalism dominating our culture and politics?
Even though the politics in the U.S. and every part of the world has become tribal, the need for human connection and understanding is greater now than ever before. I think what these times are asking of all of us is to be bold.
Change can never happen without you deciding to take a first step out of your comfort zone and me deciding to take the next step out of my comfort zone. If I as an African woman can create the space for you as an American to sit with me and talk about our differences, at the end of the day we will find out we have more in common than we have in difference.
… The need for human connection and understanding is greater now than ever before. I think what these times are asking of all of us is to be bold.Leymah Gbowee
Since 2003 you’ve earned a master’s degree, you’ve spoken to audiences around the world, and you’ve met other Nobel laureates and heads of state. Have these experiences changed how you reflect on the work you did in 2002 and 2003?
One of the things I’ve said for years is that all these other experiences make my work even more difficult to do. Every morning I wake up and feel like I haven’t accomplished a lot because I believe in what the Bible says: “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.” Every day I question myself, and I’m running myself dry because I feel like I haven’t made much impact on the world.
Are there other women who’ve received the Nobel Peace Prize whom you consider mentors or close colleagues?
We have an association of women Nobel laureates called the Nobel Women’s Initiative, and every year we try to do a tour to amplify the voices of grass-roots women in different communities. I’ve learned a lot just from being with women like Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Mairead Maguire from Ireland and Jody Williams from the United States. When I won the Nobel Prize, those were some of the people who were whispering in my ear that this is a long journey and I just need to take it one step at a time. What no one tells you is all of the different things that come with winning the prize: the pressure on your time and your energy, and the challenge of just continuing the work you were recognized for, but at a different level.
Concern for children has motivated much of your work. What can you tell me about your own children?
I have eight wonderful children: five biological, two adopted and one inherited. I say “inherited” because [when] my sister died, she left me the best gift: her only daughter, who is now my daughter. My adult children have earned degrees; my youngest is 5 years old.
My children keep me grounded, honest and humble. A few years ago I was going to an event at a university in Tennessee, and two of my children were with me. We got off the flight, and there was a police officer standing there with a sign with my name on it. My children whispered to me, “What did you do now, that you’re going to get arrested?” For a moment I got confused. Did I say something against the U.S. government that they would arrest me for? So I identified myself to the officer, and some people said, “Welcome!” and walked me outside, and there was a limo waiting for us. My kids were like, “Oh! We forgot it was the Nobel thing.”
I’m grateful to God for children like that, because I know that they’re comfortable in their own skin. I don’t expect them to be just like me; they’re taking their own path.
Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
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