10 Aug 2014

Leymah Gbowee: a warrior for peace in war-torn Liberia

Written by  Rosaline Daniel

No. 305: Leymah Gbowee: a warrior for peace in war-torn Liberia / Rosaline Daniel / The Sunday Independent
10 August 2014

As South Africans commemorated Women's Day on Saturday and as many of the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram rebels in north-eastern Nigeria remain in the custody of their kidnappers, this is an opportune time to remember another African schoolgirl who overcame terror in the face of armed violence and helped to bring peace to her country.

Liberian heroine Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel peace prize in 2011 for her efforts in uniting women and bringing an end to an 11-year civil war that had a particularly devastating effect on women.

Gbowee was only 17 years of age and about to enter university to study biology and chemistry at university when, in December 1989, Charles Taylor led a group of armed rebels into northern Liberia from Ivory Coast, causing a bloody civil war.

The conflict initially lasted until Taylor was elected president in 1997, before starting again in 1999 and only ending with Taylor's exile in Nigeria in 2003.

It left an estimated 500 000 to 600 000 people living in internally displaced people's camps, and claimed about 250 000 lives.

The brutal 11-year civil war had a major impact on women.

Gbowee recalls incidents of women having knives inserted into their private parts, and of combatants cutting open pregnant women in order to verify the winner of a bet to determine the sex of the woman's child.

She experienced anger and fear over the course of the civil war, which ravaged her country.

Eventually, these emotions culminated in peaceful activism after she responded to a dream she had in April 2002 in which she heard a voice telling her to: "Gather the women to pray for peace."

The call led Gbowee to launch a campaign for which she later became a Nobel peace laureate in 2011 (with Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and Tawakkul Karman, a pro-democracy campaigner from Yemen).

The prize recognised the leadership role of women in working for peace and security throughout the world, speaking directly to the need for non-violent activism to promote women's rights and safety.

Although Charles Taylor had banned street marches, the Women in Peacebuilding Network (Wipnet) with Gbowee as co-ordinator organised a Mass Action for Peace campaign in which women from all faiths and walks of life staged a series of peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations across Liberia.

The protesters wore white, representing peace and unity and offering a constant reminder of the suffering of ordinary Liberians.

The women's struggle for peace in Liberia lasted three years, and involved community awareness initiatives and a "sex strike" by women designed to persuade their partners to join the struggle to end the war.

The Liberian women's movement played an important role in putting pressure on Taylor's army and rebel factions to attend internationally sanctioned peace talks in Accra, Ghana, which began in June 2003, and ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement a month later.

Gbowee and her colleagues were able to appeal to the consciences of hardened warlords who were forced to question their roles in the conflict rather than see their "mothers" strip naked in a desperate bid to bring peace to the country.

After the Liberian war ended, Gbowee continued her peace activism by holding regular consultations with women in Liberia to educate them on the terms of the peace deal and to monitor its implementation.

Her Wipnet, in partnership with the United Nations Mission in Liberia, was instrumental in encouraging former combatants to surrender their arms in 2003 and 2004.

In addition, Gbowee and her colleagues encouraged women to vote, educating them about the voting process in order to make them active stakeholders in their country's political future.

The large turnout of women in the 2005 elections — about 51 percent — was clear testament to the impact of these peacebuilding efforts.

The Liberian women's network, with Gbowee as its "face", effectively paved the way for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to become Africa's first democratically elected female president in this historic election.

The Leymah Gbowee story has transcended geographical and ethnic boundaries, mobilising women in countries such as Egypt, Peru, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq to come together and plan strategies for changing their lives.

The grass-roots nature of the women's peace movement in Liberia demonstrated the necessity of including women and other local actors in peace and post-conflict reconstruction processes, at the policy and decision-making levels, as well as on the ground.

Such engagement is promoted through UN Security Council Resolution 1325 of 2000 on women, peace, and security.

In her Nobel prize speech in Oslo in December 2011, Gbowee hailed women throughout the world who continue to fight for peace, equality, social justice, and inclusion in political decision-making.

For her, the prize honoured not just women, but all humanity, and represented a call for leaders everywhere to embrace women's rights as human rights and to strive to implement policies and processes which include women more effectively.

Undoubtedly, women's peace activism altered the political landscape in Liberia, opening up opportunities for women's participation in peace-building and governance, and resulting in a female president.

However, while the adoption of UN resolutions, such as 1325 and 1820 of 2008 on strengthening the protection of women from sexual violence, are laudable, the resources and political will to implement them are often lacking in many countries.

In Liberia, for example, a culture of impunity continues coupled with a weak justice system, meaning that the prosecution of perpetrators of violence against women remains an unresolved issue.

In addition, the country is still faced with numerous challenges which include high unemployment and crime; inadequate rehabilitation of former child soldiers into local communities; gender-based violence; corruption; and a poor education system.

As a peace activist, Leymah Gbowee has worked to promote development and the rights of women and girls in Liberia to help bring peace to her war-torn nation. Following her Nobel prize victory, Gbowee has continued to promote the influence of women in West Africa and around the world, and remains an inspiration to peace and gender activists everywhere.

Daniel is a Senior Project Officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town.

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