“We are of tired war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulghur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, Mama what was your role during the crisis?”
Meet LEYMAH GBOWEE—charismatic women’s rights and peace activist and Nobel Peace Laureate.
Leymah mobilized women from across Liberia’s ethnic and religious divides to bravely stand up against the government and the warlords to end a 14-year civil war that killed 250,000 civilians. The warlords were responsible for horrific violence, including the rape and abduction of women and children. Tired of living with fear, Leymah decided to demand peace and become an agent of change in her country.
Leymah was born in a village in central Liberia in 1972. When the war started in 1989, she was still a teenager and was deeply affected by the violence that brought suffering to so many women and children around her. In 1998, in an effort to gain admission to an associate of arts degree program in social work, Gbowee became a volunteer within a program operating out of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia. It was called the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program, and it marked the beginning of Gbowee’s journey toward being a peace activist. She worked to heal ex-child soldiers.
The war grew more brutal. One night in 2002 Leymah had a dream in which God said: “Gather the women and pray for peace!” So Leymah reached out Christian and Muslim women, and together they created a powerful coalition. The Liberian Mass Action for Peace brought together women who staged regular public protests, picketing, fasting and praying. They wanted other women to gain strength from their solidarity against Liberia’s ruthless then-president, Charles Taylor, and rebel warlords. Leymah even encouraged the women of Liberia to go on a sex strike in order to get their husbands to bring “the warring men to their senses” in Liberia.
Leymah’s crowning achievement came in 2003 when she brought thousands of women together to protests in the capital, Monrovia, helping to push Taylor to agree to peace talks in Ghana. Leymah and other women protesters followed him to Ghana, to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process. When the women barred the doors to prevent the peace-talks from breaking up, Nigerian President General Abubakar noted, “The peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops.”
Soon after, a historic peace agreement was signed. Peace was finally possible, in large part thanks to Leymah and the hundreds of women who courageously took responsibility for helping to bring the war to an end. Indeed, Liberia’s women’s movement led to the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia, the first elected woman leader of a country in Africa.
Leymah Gbowee is now the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra, Ghana, which builds relationships across the West African sub-region in support of women’s capacity to prevent, avert, and end conflicts. She is also a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). She has received at least 10 major awards, including in 2009, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, together with the women of Liberia, for their role in the peace process in Liberia.
Among many other accomplishments, Leymah wrote a book titled Mighty Be Our Power: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. It recounts the victories, but also the sacrifices—such as having to leave her children for long periods of time. Leymah was also the central character in the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which chronicles the remarkable story of Leymah and her fellow Liberian peacemakers.
Today in Oslo, Leymah’s tireless effort to bring peace to the women and children of Liberia is earning her the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman. Leymah and the other two women are being recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Leymah’s journey to peace proves that an ordinary woman can do extraordinary work, create sustainable change for women and bring peace to a place where war once ruled.
Watch Leymah and the others receive their Nobel Peace Prize live on Saturday, Dec 10th at 6:50 am EST/ 12:50 pm CET.
“[T]his prize is not just in recognition of the triumph of women. It is a triumph of humanity. To recognize and honor women, the other half of humanity, is to achieve universal wholeness and balance.” — Leymah Gbowee