|Gbowee believes it is up to Liberia’s women to press for peace in the country’s brutal civil war [AFP]|
Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee was one of three women jointly awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in leading women to defy feared warlords and pushing men toward peace during one of Africa’s bloodiest wars.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee noted Gbowee for organising a group of Christian and Muslim women in challenging Liberia’s warlords, and honoured her for mobilising women “across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections”.
She shares the prize with her country’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and another female peace activist, Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman.
A social worker by profession, Gbowee has worked as a trauma counsellor and with former child soldiers from former Liberian president Charles Taylor’s army.
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.
In 2009 she received the 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.
That year she also won a Profile in Courage Award, an honour named for a 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by John F. Kennedy, for her work in emboldening women in Liberia.
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.
Accra peace talks
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 talks were going nowhere, and on a day a bomb exploded at the American embassy compound in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, 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.
The men got back to the talks and two weeks later, the terms of the Accra peace treaty were announced.
Later in 2005, she mobilised women to vote in an election, which saw Sirleaf become Africa’s first elected female president.
“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.
“What we did in Liberia was to create havoc: peaceful, feminine havoc … Women brought sanity to Liberia,” Gbowee wrote in her Newsweek column.