“It is time to stand up, sisters, and do some of the most unthinkable things. We have the power to turn our upside-down world right.”
Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist and women´s rights advocate. She received the Nobel prize in 2011 for leading a women´s peace movement that brought together Christian and Muslim women to end Liberia´s civil war in 2003.
She was only 17 when the First Liberian Civil War erupted in 1989, turning her “from a child into an adult in a matter of hours”, as she said. Witnessing the terrible consequences of war, she started training as a trauma counsellor and social worker, helping ex-child soldiers.
A second civil war broke out in 1999, bringing rape and brutality to an already war-weary Liberia. Leymah became more and more aware of the fundamental role women could and did play to restore peace and she created an interfaith movement known as the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Through her leadership, thousands of women took part in non-violent public protests, demanding reconciliation and peace talks. These protests forced Liberia´s former president Charles Taylor to start formal peace talks, which took place under the strategic pressure of women´s groups creating human barricades to prevent the participants leaving before reaching a peace agreement. As a result, the president resigned and went into exile and a peace treaty was signed, paving the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, fellow 2011 Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Leymah´s activism had just started: in 2007 she earned a Master´s degree in Conflict Transformation and she continued to lead women´s movements for sustainable peace. She co-founded the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding and the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-A), to promote cross-national peace-building efforts. Leymah also served as a member of both the African Feminist Forum and the African Women’s Leadership Network on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and as a commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission, addressing the particular vulnerability of women and children in war-torn societies. In 2012 she launched the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, which encourages women´s inclusion as leaders and agents of change in Africa.
Since winning the Nobel prize in 2011, Leymah travels around the world to speak and sensitize about the effects of war and gender-based violence, advocating for women´s inclusion in conflict resolutions. In one of her many interviews, this inspiring woman said:
“The Liberian women peace movement demonstrated to the world that grassroots movements are essential to sustaining peace; that women in leadership positions are effective brokers for peace; and the importance of culturally relevant social justice movements. Liberia’s experience is a good example to the world that women—especially African women—can be drivers of peace.”
If you wish to learn more about her story, take a look at the documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, in which she is both narrator and central character.
By Elena Floriani, WAVE Intern