Celebrate Leymah Gbowee
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
“We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur 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?“” – Leymah Gbowee, in a speech to President Charles Taylor and Grace Minor, president of the Senate of Liberia.
This week in nonviolent history, we celebrate the birthday of Leymah Gbowee! Born on Feb 1st, 1972, Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist. She was seventeen years old when the first Liberian Civil War erupted, throwing the region into violence and chaos. In spring of 2002, after falling asleep in her office one night, she awoke from a dream where she says God had told her, “Gather the women and pray for peace!”
By the summer of 2002, Gbowee was recognized as the spokeswoman and inspirational leader of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, described as a peace movement that started with local women praying and singing in a fish market. Gathering women across religious and ethnic lines, Gbowee led thousands of Christians and Muslims into actions in Monrovia for months. They prayed for peace, using Muslim and Christian prayers, and eventually held daily nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from President Charles Taylor.
They staged protests that included the threat of a curse and a sex strike. “The [sex] strike lasted, on and off, for a few months,” Gbowee said. “It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.”
In a highly risky move, the women occupied a soccer field along the route President Charles Taylor traveled twice a day, to and from Capitol Hill. Demonstrating, occupying, and wearing white clothes and headbands as a symbol of peace, the women were eventually successful in securing an audience with Taylor. Leymah Gbowee was designated spokeswoman, and gave a speech which included the quote at the start of this essay.
In June 2003, Gbowee led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process. When the talks dragged into late July, with no progress made and violence continuing in Liberia, Gbowee passed a message to the lead mediator, General Abubakar (a former president of Nigeria), that hundreds of women would interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway until a peace agreement was reached. Abubakar announced with some amusement: “The peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops.” When the men tried to leave the hall, Leymah and her allies threatened to rip their clothes off – in Africa, it was considered a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself. With Abubakar’s support, the women remained sitting outside the negotiating room during the following days, ensuring that the “atmosphere at the peace talks changed from circuslike to somber.”
The Liberian war ended officially weeks later August 18, 2003. In addition to bringing an end to 14 years of warfare in Liberia, this women’s movement led to the election of Leymah Gbowee’s cohort, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as president of Liberia in 2005, the first elected woman leader of a country in Africa. Sirleaf is co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize along with Gbowee and Tawakel Karman.
The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace is powerfully depicted in the documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
Learn more about Leymah Gwobee here:
Find great video clips of her speeches on her website, here:leymahgbowee.com
Photo Credit: Leymah Gbowee (October 2011) Wikimedia Commons