Liberia's Gbowee sowed peace

2011-10-07 18:29
Monrovia - Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, led women to defy feared warlords and pushed men toward peace during one of Africa's bloodiest wars.

Without this group of women who would gather in Monrovia to pray and protest in white shirts, many believe the insanity of 13 years of conflict which left some 250 000 dead, would not have ended as it did in 2003.

"This is not a traditional war story," Gbowee, 39, wrote in her autobiography "Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at 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."

She shares the 2011 peace prize with her country's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and another woman peace activist, Yemen's Tawakkul Karman.

Gbowee was 17 when war first broke out in 1989 as warlord Charles Taylor led an uprising to topple president Samuel Doe. Freshly out of high school and planning to study medicine, her whole world was turned upside down.

After Taylor became president in 1997 and the brutal conflict dragged on, Gbowee realised it would be up to the country's women to press for peace.


She brought Christian and Muslim women together to pray for peace, braving the sun, the rain and the deafening sounds of bombs and fighting.

"Nothing happened overnight. In fact it took three years of community awareness, sit-ins, and non-violent demonstrations staged by ordinary "market women"," Gbowee wrote in her Africa column in Newsweek magazine.

"Then we launched the sex strike. In 2002, Liberia’s Christian and Muslim women banded together to refuse sex with their husbands until the violence and civil strife ended."

Her campaign called for an immediate ceasefire, dialogue between government and rebels and the deployment of an intervention force at a time when a handful of peace agreements had failed.

"Our president at the time, Charles Taylor, was against all three," Gbowee told a university seminar in Boston in 2006.

In 2003, under Gbowee's leadership, the group managed to force a meeting with Taylor, getting him to promise he would attend peace talks in Ghana.

As it became clear the Accra talks were going nowhere, and on a day a bomb exploded at the American embassy compound in Monrovia the women realised they had to do something dramatic.

As shown in the documentary "Pray the Devil back to Hell", some 200 women blocked the warring factions from leaving the room where the peace talks were taking place.

Security forces attempted to arrest her for obstructing justice, one warlord tried to push and kick the women away, and Gbowee threatened to strip naked in public, seen as a powerful curse in West Africa.

Toy of war

The men got back to the talks and two weeks later, the terms of the Accra peace treaty were announced.

Later she mobilised women to vote in an election which saw Sirleaf become Africa's first elected female president.

"She is more than courageous. She braved the storm of Charles Taylor, forced him to go for peace when most of us men were running for our life," Nathan Jacobs, a 45-year-old civil servant, told AFP in Monrovia.

A social worker by profession, Gbowee has worked as a trauma counsellor and with former child soldiers from Taylor's army.

"Rape was the toy of war. On a daily basis, women were being raped. Young children were being abducted and sent into the army. Children were taken in the night, the next morning they were taught how to fire an AK-47, and then they went to war the following day! Women were the single heads of the family. Personally, I went through all of that," she said in Boston.

She is the founder and executive director for Women, Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-A) based in Ghana, where she lives with her six children.

Gbowee has been awarded the Blue Ribbon for Peace by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

She is also the winner of the 2009 Gruber Women's Rights Prize, which honours an individual who has brought about significant advances in the quest for peace and gender equality in Africa.

"What we did in Liberia was to create havoc: peaceful, feminine havoc ... Women brought sanity to Liberia," Gbowee wrote in her column.

Read more on:    leymah gbowee  |  ellen johnson sirleaf  |  liberia  |  nobel peace prize  |  west africa

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