By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
“Live with integrity. Embrace strangers. Refuse to walk on tiptoes. Walk loudly, leaving an impact on our world. Building peace in a war-making world is not difficult. It takes heart.”
- Leymah Gbowee
Peacebuilder, Nobel Peace Prize awardee, activist, social worker, women’s rights advocate and more. Leymah Gbowee is most known for her efforts in leading a powerful grassroots women’s movement for peace and justice during the Second Liberian Civil War.
During the first civil war in Liberia, Charles Taylor, a former employee under Samuel Doe’s government, championed the National Patriotic Front of Liberia rebel group to overthrow Doe and the incumbent government. Following the end of the Civil War in 1996, Taylor was elected president in the general election in 1997 and became one of Africa’s most menacing warlords. During his tenure as president, Taylor committed several war crimes and crimes against humanity, most prominently during the Sierra Leone Civil War. As opposition and distrust to his government grew, the Second Civil War broke out and Taylor resigned and fled to Nigeria. The Civil War transformed into an ethnic conflict between the several ethnic factions among the native Liberians and the Americo-Liberians.
The resistance again Taylor was primarily led by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) that comprised of numerous anti-Taylor militant groups. In 2003, after three years of conflict and more than 200,000 deaths, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) joined the fight. Both parties involved in the war in Liberia employed rape as a war tactic and recruited children as soldiers or ammunition porters,(1) ignoring prohibitions of the practice in the Geneva Convention.
Rise of a Trailblazer
Leymah was only seventeen years old when the second civil war broke out in 2000 and she remarked that the war had turned her “from a child into an adult in a matter of hours.”(2) While the conflict raged, she was in an abusive relationship and became a young mother. Leymah went on to receive training as a social worker, helping those who suffered from psychological trauma while also working with former child-soldiers. In Liberia, she also began volunteering with the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in the capital city of Monrovia. Her mother was a leader of the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program, which Leymah also actively engaged with. As a firm believer of the crucial role that women play in peacebuilding, conflict resolution and trauma healing, she founded the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) and the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), both of which she was the Liberia coordinator.
In 2003, Leymah began organising Christian women from her church and across the community to organise and mobilise for peace. At a meeting at her church, in March of that year, a Muslim woman Asatu Bah Kenneth pledged that she would involve Muslim women to join the movement alongside their Christian compatriots. This led to an unprecedent coalition between Muslim and Christian women across the city and was named the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, which fell under the wider ambit of WIPNET.(1) Working across ethnic and religious lines, this was a watershed movement in that Liberians finally united under one umbrella to pray and mobilise for peace.
As the movement gained traction, these group of determined women held peace vigils in both mosques and churches. In addition, they staged mass meetings in Monrovia’s City Hall and marched in streets chanting “We want peace. No more War.” Hearing the powerful call on the radio, hundreds of women joined in, many of them internally displaced and impacted by the war. Together, the women protested and amplified their voices in non-violent ways: singing, dancing, marching and chanting. The white sackcloth they wore symbolised their commitment to peace.
The women planned their strategies to perfection – positioning themselves at the fish market as it was in plain view from the President’s residence. Whenever his motorcade passed by, the sight of over 2500 women protesting would greet him with renewed fervour. Even as President Taylor sent armed men into the streets to beat and intimated the women, the latter stood firmly with grit, refusing to give up and continued with their demonstrations.(3)
Leymah encouraged the participating women to go on sex strikes and denying their partners sexual pleasures until they joined in the fight and dropped their support for the inhuman regime. Leymah, in her memoir, once claimed that although the sex strikes had virtually no effect, the media attention was useful for getting their message across and spreading it to everyone around the country.(4) Violence escalated. Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace appealed to the United Nations and the diplomatic community.(5) The international media called for peace talks. Both sides refused. The women persisted, amping up the disruption by organising more and more sit-ins, street protests and vigils.
This group of remarkable and courageous women had no political agenda and simply stated their goals to be peace. “The women of Liberia say peace is our goal, peace is what matters, peace is what we need.”
As Leymah wrote in an article for the New York Times: “We were primarily focused on providing security and safety to our villages. We wanted to be able to feed, clothe and educate our children. We wanted change, but we did not explicitly centre our efforts on the Taylor regime. We insisted that we were only working for peace, not politics.” (5)
Unbeknownst to them, though, their actions were inherently political and game-changing. These events spurred the latent movement of women’s rights and representations not just across the country, but across the African continent too, while also inspiring women across the globe to mobilise.
On April 11, 2003, the women marched through the streets of Monrovia and rallied at the Municipal Office, refusing to budge until the President agreed to listen to the women and arrange for a meeting. When he finally agreed, the women presented their position statement and pleaded for peace negotiations and a cease-fire. When the president responded by offering $5000 dollars, the women firmly refused claiming strongly that “Money cannot buy peace.”(3)
Afterwards when President Taylor agreed to take part in formal peace talks in Accra, Ghana, Leymah led a delegation of women and kept pressurising all the parties until a reasonable solution was formulated. They even locked the doors of the room where the negotiations were taking place and stood guard to make sure there were no interruptions. As the discussions progressed, the women were determined to see the talks through until the end.
Even when the talks seemed stalled, Leymah and a group of 200 women stood tall and strong as roadblocks to prevent the parties from leaving, refusing to even let them take a break. Further, when authorities attempted to arrest Leymah she threatened to disrobe – a shameful act that was believed to curse the men and bring massive dishonour. Leymah was clever and tactful, using the patriarchal beliefs and customs to her and the women’s advantage to ensure what needed to be done.(2) The women’s valiant efforts work as a peace treaty calling for the establishment of a transitional government was signed – marking a historic turning point for the peace process.
While the country heaved a sigh of relief, Leymah and her team did not stop to rest. Realising that peace is not just the mere absence of violence, conflict and gunfire, they immediately got to work to enable structural overhaul and reforms. They went from village to village, engaging Liberians about their civic duties and urged women to vote. Despite the resistance and the satisfaction they encountered from many people, Leymah and her team were firm in their resolve that “peace is not enough.”(5) As Leymah wrote in her memoir, “A war of fourteen years doesn't just go away. In the moments we were calm enough to look around, we had to confront the magnitude of what had happened in Liberia.”(4) She noted the tremendous psychological trauma Liberians had to go through on account of thousands of deaths, internal displacements and refugees torn away from their homes and families.
Leymah also made note of the cultural insensitivity of the United Nations peacekeepers who had been deployed to disarm the country, build and maintain the peace, introduce democracy and help with rebuilding effort. She expressed disappointment in the way the UN spent millions of dollars for their own resources instead of allowing the local people to decide how the financial resources could be used. She was a strong advocate for not only involving local civil society in reconstruction efforts but also in letting them lead. She pressed for the leadership of grassroots movements and women’s organisations in executing the ideas and the needs of the Liberians for evolving peace and governance.
Over the next two years, the role the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace played in bringing about democratic institutions was instrumental. They registered voters and set up polling stations to fruitful results – voter turnout was around 75%. On November 23, 2005, Liberia elected Africa’s first female head of state Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This historical achievement also marked the vanguard of a new wave of women in peacekeeping as effective participants, leaders and stakeholders in brokering lasting peace and security. Leymah co-founded the Women, Peace and Security Network African (WIPSEN-Africa) in 2006, as a women-focused and women-led pan-African initiative to empower women’s participation and leadership in peacebuilding and governance in the continent. Along with her co-founders, Thelma Ekiyor and Ecoma Bassey Alaga, the WIPSEN-Africa operates out of Ghana and has a presence in several countries including Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
In 2018, Leymah explained that “there is still resistance to female leadership and participation at the community and national levels. But there is also an intergenerational movement of women who are building on the work of the women’s peace movement and determined to have their voices heard.”(5) She realised that the decades of struggle for peace would be in vain if those at the top of the political rungs didn’t invest in sustainable peace.
Leymah and the Women of Liberia changed the narrative about the role of women in peace and provided a fillip to the mandate set by the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1325 from three years earlier. Their enduring legacy is one of triumph, grit and hard work, proving definitively that women can be legitimate actors in negotiating peace.
4. Gbowee, Leymah; Mithers, Carol (2011). Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War: A Memoir.