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Unleashing the Power of Women

Interview with Leymah Gbowee
Leymah Gbowee [Michael Angelo for Wonderland]

Leymah Gbowee is central to the Liberian women's peace movement which contributed to ending years of bloody civil war. She is now executive director of the Women, Peace and Security Network, WIPSEN-Africa. In the award-winning documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," she recounts how Liberian women moved from desperation to anger and finally to breakthrough:

"It was hell on Earth. My children had been tired and hungry their entire lives. You go to bed and pray that you will have something different the next day. The shooting will stop, the killing will stop, and the hunger will stop."

Leymah dreamed that she should get the women of the church together to pray for peace. Although reluctant at first, she became the leader of a united group of Christian women who then reached out to their Muslim sisters across lines that had traditionally divided Liberian women.

"We called Janet, the presenter of Radio Veritas, the Catholic-owned radio station. She said on air, 'Are you sick and tired of war? Come join a peace festival and rally.' We wore white for peace. No makeup, jewelry, or doing our hair. We decided to sit at the fish market in Monrovia every day. Thousands of us--the first time in our history Muslim and Christian women came together."

While the women's wish to end the war grew out of visceral, daily pain and the desire to protect their children, loved ones and themselves, they did not only draw on their emotions. They strategized, reading Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., constantly reviewing their progress. They engaged religious leaders in dialogue, finding allies wherever they could.

They continued their tireless protesting, two months of it outside the building in Ghana where the government and rebel factions were supposedly negotiating peace. When Leymah was told she was obstructing justice, her patience burst.

She instructed the women to link arms and encircle the building, and not to let the men out until a deal had been reached. When one rebel leader tried to push his way through, Leymah started to deliberately remove her clothes. In her culture, it is shameful for a man to see the naked body of his mother. This act of desperation finally made the men wake up to what they were doing.

The former President of Nigeria, who was leading the negotiations, told the rebel leader to go back inside. "If you were a real man," he said, "you wouldn't be killing your people." The spell was broken. And not long after, the peace agreement was signed.

SGI Quarterly: What was your original motivation for wanting to work for peace?

Leymah Gbowee: Children were virtually dying from hunger. Kids would be sitting outside different embassies just looking up and imagining that someone would give them food. Or you would see mothers bringing their babies and just leaving them there to die, hoping that people would give them food instead of allowing them to die. I felt I had to do something.

Women in Liberia march for peace, 2004 [Tim A. Hetherington/Panos]

So, gradually I started from working with little girls in the community, moving on to working with ex-child-soldiers, then to working with women in internally displaced shelters, and later on, to peacebuilding. I had to do something to ease some of the pain. I was taking out some of the anger that I felt--not just sitting back and complaining and crying.

SGIQ: What is it that enables women to come together more easily than men?

LG: One of the things that made it quite easy--it didn't just happen overnight--was the constant appeal to our similarities, rather than the things that easily divide us. What were those things that were similar? One, we were the ones watching our children die of hunger. Two, we were the easiest targets of rape and sexual abuse. Three, we were the ones who were going out to look for food. So we were the ones who were out there. It became really, really difficult for us to just not do anything. Then we started using language like, "Does a bullet know a Christian from a Muslim, can a bullet pick and choose?" And one of the things we did was put women in a room and say, "What do you see? If I am standing here, who do you see?" "I see Leymah," and they describe the physical features. "Do you see her ethnicity?" "No." "Do you see her religion?" "No." "What do you see?" "I see someone who has similar physical features like me. Her hair is braided, she has breasts. . ." This made it really easy.

SGIQ: Can you describe some of the initiatives that you are developing now?

LG: We are instituting a program called Rural Women, Peace and Security. The women in the communities in Liberia told us they knew when fighting was imminent in the community, but it was difficult for them to tell the security people, because the security forces didn't have that kind of relationship previously with them. So, most of them decided to keep the information to themselves. So in peacetime we can start a conversation about the relationship between the security sector and those communities as a means of stopping conflict.

Liberian schoolchildren playing [Uniphoto Press]

We also have something called the Youth, Security and Development Program. Under this program, we are doing something called the Young Girls' Transformative Leadership Project. We realized from our past that we rarely had girls in our movement. There was a huge intergenerational gap.

A third one is called Women, Gender and the Security Sector. I work with women in the security apparatus. We're trying to demilitarize the concept of security. So our work is predominantly to make room for women, not just in quotas but in all of the policies and the technicalities involved with the security sector.

SGIQ: How important is Resolution 1325 as a tool for raising the profile of women's participation in peacebuilding?

LG: I think the resolution is a very good one. It really, really speaks to the needs of women in peacebuilding. But it needs to be strengthened. It is not binding. Secondly, it needs to involve real commitments for governments where they say what they will do. At the moment, most National Action Plans are the responsibility of the heads of the Ministries of Women's Affairs. It should not be limited to them. It is high time that governments as a whole, even Ministries of Defense, start working on the plans.

SGIQ: What would you say to women around the world who feel that their lives are not impacted by this issue as they don't live in a conflict zone?

LG: One thing I would say is that usually what the impact of conflict shows is a reflection of the interactions between the genders in peacetime.

So in peacetime, let the women start an analysis of the relationships between men and women. Is there domestic violence? Are there laws and policies to protect women? Are there discriminatory practices in the society? Now is the time for action to address these issues. Women are not free anywhere in this world until all women in the world are free.

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