The activist who organized Liberian women to end civil war
When I went to Liberia in 2004, I saw signs posted all over proclaiming slogans of peace and the name of the Women In Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). These signs sprouted amid the rubble that marked the path of fighting during the civil war. I asked my host what this was all about, and he told me about vigils at a fish market. Later, when the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell came out, I learned the depth of the women’s actions. (You’ve got to see that movie—two thumbs up, five stars!) Then, in 2011, peace activists around the world were thrilled to see a trio of heroic women—Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia—receive the Nobel Peace Prize
for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.
We will keep walking until peace, justice, and the rights of women is not a dream, but is a thing of the present.
No peace talks had ever been so disrupted. Two hundred women formed a blockade with their bodies, locking the negotiators inside the hotel conference room. Peace talks were being held in Accra, Ghana, to seek a settlement to the Liberian Civil War. Talks had dragged on for weeks with the various warlords showing no seriousness about ending the conflict that had cost more than 200,000 lives. Then the women acted, women who had been demonstrating daily for peace in Liberia and finally had traveled to Accra. They surrounded the place where the negotiators were gathered and refused to let them out until they came up with a peace agreement. Soon the negotiators were negotiating with them, and the women set the terms for how the peace process would be handled. The women’s action changed the nature of the talks and precipitated an end to a conflict that had gone on since 1989.
At their head was Leymah Gbowee.
When Leymah Gbowee was a teenager, the civil war in Liberia erupted. Charles Taylor started the war in 1989, and soon other warlords entered the fray. President Samuel Doe was killed, but the fighting continued. Taylor had his
small boys unit, children ages 9 to 15 who were often drugged as they fought. They were notorious for their brutalities, including hacking off the limbs of civilians. As part of a peace plan, elections were held in 1997 and Charles Taylor was elected President, more out of fear that he would continue the war than out of respect or support. Fighting exploded again in 1999 with a rebel movement known as LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. In spite of the noble-sounding name, LURD forces were as brutal as Taylor’s. The rebels seized whatever they wanted. They stole, killed and raped at will. As the fighting spread, one out of three Liberians was displaced by the war.
Gbowee knew the horrors of war. She had to flee an attack on her village when she was five months pregnant, bringing her 3-year old son and 2-year old daughter with her. They had no food. She experienced the anguish of a mother with nothing to give her hungry children. Eventually, Gbowee became a social worker with an emphasis on trauma counseling. She worked with soldiers who as children had fought in Charles Taylor’s army. She saw the damage done from violence to their young lives.
As the war continued to grind down the country, Gbowee shared a dream at her home church in Monrovia. She dreamed of the women from all churches gathering together to pray for peace. From that dream the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative was born. A Muslim woman, Asatu Bah Kenneth, inspired by Gbowee’s dream, pledged to organize the Muslim women. At first there was some difficulty bringing the Christian and Muslim women together, but the leaders said,
Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know a Christian from a Muslim? The coming together of these women from the two main Liberian religions formed WIPNET, the Women In Peacebuilding Network.
WIPNET leaders organized women across Liberia. They went into the sprawling displaced-persons camps on the outskirts of Monrovia. They had heard stories of horrific abuses, yet the WIPNET leaders were struck by the hopefulness of these women who had lost everything. Since Taylor attended church, and the leaders of LURD their mosques, the women began challenging their respective pastors and imams to pressure the two sides to stop the war.
By April 2003 the war was getting worse, so Gbowee decided to do something more dramatic. WIPNET broadcast a call on the radio for women to come out to protest. They drew their image from the Bible story of Esther protesting to protect her people. The women wore plain white clothes as a sign of peace, and set aside their usual hair adornments popular with Liberian women. They gathered at the Fish Market, a strategic place alongside the road where Taylor would have to pass every day to go to his presidential office. With T-shirts, signs and songs they made their message clear:
The women of Liberia want peace now! Every day Taylor’s convoy would pass, but he never stopped to talk with the women. Instead he harshly criticized them to the press:
Nobody can embarrass my administration! Soon there were as many as 2,500 women holding vigil at the Fish Market, waiting in the sun with hand-made placards:
We want peace, no more war.
The women employed many methods to get their message across. They developed a white T-shirt uniform. They launched a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their husbands until the men mobilized for peace. They put up billboards:
The women of Liberia say peace is our goal. Peace is what matters. Peace is what we need. WIPNET groups were organized in 9 of Liberia’s 15 counties, taking the message of peace far and wide.
LURD’s forces seized control of most of the rural areas and began moving toward Monrovia. They attacked the displaced-persons’ camp, and the civilians were trapped between the violence of both sides. Meanwhile Taylor and his rebels refused all appeals to negotiate. So the women wrote a formal statement demanding peace talks. They marched to Parliament in Monrovia. All along the route, women streamed out to swell the numbers. Finally Taylor agreed to receive the women. As hundreds of white-clad women sat in the sun, Gbowee presented their statement. Boldly she faced the President who had killed so many and said,
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. Taylor finally agreed to peace talks.
Next WIPNET leaders went to Freetown in Sierra Leone to present their appeal to the rebel leaders. The women challenged the rebels that their mothers were coming to tell them to go to the peace talks and that the rebels were as involved in human rights abuses as Taylor had been. LURD agreed to participate, mainly seeing the peace process as another way to oust Taylor.
The talks were held in Accra, Ghana, hosted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which had earlier sponsored peacekeeping operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Meanwhile WIPNET had been raising money to get as many women as possible to go to Ghana to support and monitor the peace talks. They mobilized Liberian refugee women in the camps in Ghana. On June 4, 2003 the talks began, and the women were in place along the travel route to the hotel. They kept vigil with their signs and songs just as they had in Monrovia.
Early in the talks, stunning news was announced: Charles Taylor had been indicted for crimes against humanity related to the war in Sierra Leone. Taylor quickly returned to Liberia to avoid arrest, leaving his delegation in Accra to continue talks. Almost immediately full-scale war hit Monrovia. Once again, civilians were caught in the fighting and endured incredible suffering. The women in Accra worried and wept as they followed the grim news reports.
Gbowee and the other WIPNET leaders kept going back and forth between the delegations to urge them toward peace, but they grew increasingly frustrated. The war was claiming countless victims back home, but the leaders of LURD were enjoying themselves living in luxury at the hotel rather than the bush. The rebels poured out insults on the women as they passed them. After six weeks, there had been no movement in the talks. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, chief mediator and former President of Nigeria, acknowledged they were getting nowhere.
On July 21, the US embassy was hit by rockets, which fell among the displaced people camping inside the compound. This atrocity fueled fresh anger in Leymah Gbowee, who proclaimed:
Today is the showdown. She had the women sit at the door of the conference hall with their arms looped together. They blocked anyone from coming in or going out. Gbowee said,
We’re going to keep them in that room without water, without food, so they at least feel what the ordinary people in Liberia are feeling at this particular point in time. On the loudspeaker someone announced:
Oh, my God, the peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops! Security guards confronted Gbowee saying she was
obstructing justice and tried to arrest her. That charge was the final insult to Gbowee. She stood and began to strip off her clothes. In West Africa it is a curse to see the naked body of one’s mother. Her action prompted a quick and desperate response.
Gen. Abubakar came out to meet with Gbowee in front of the women and media. Gbowee spoke of their frustration with the warlords and the insults they endured. Abubakar listened and joined in challenging the warlords, saying they weren’t real men for killing their own people.
Because you are not real men, he said,
That’s why the women are treating you like boys. Abubakar negotiated with the women: An agreement would be reached within two weeks; otherwise thousands of women would converge. Also, the warlords would have to attend sessions regularly, pass the women each day and speak no insults. Gbowee said,
This peace talk has to be a real peace talk, not a circus.
The women’s blockade dramatically changed the mood at the talks. Within two weeks an agreement was reached. Charles Taylor was exiled to Nigeria where he was later arrested to be tried in The Hague for his war crimes. U.N. peacekeeping forces were deployed, and a transitional government was established.
Gbowee and the WIPNET women kept close watch on the implementation of the peace agreement. They continued their vigils in the streets. They worked in the communities on reconciliation, disarmament and forgiveness. They knew firsthand about the terrible things perpetrators had done, but understood that many of the
child soldiers were victims as well. WIPNET challenged the U.N. peacekeeping operation when the disarmament process turned into chaos. Gbowee and other women went to the streets and got directly involved in calming the situation. They talked directly to the soldiers on the streets, getting them to surrender their weapons.
The women of WIPNET mobilized to teach about democracy and participation in the upcoming election. They did not support any of the warlords. Instead, in January of 2006, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president, the first female president of an African nation. Johnson Sirleaf praised the women of WIPNET in her inauguration speech, acknowledging
the powerful voice of women … It is the women who labored and advocated for peace in our region. Gbowee said about their achievement,
We stood out and did the unimaginable.
After almost three years of transforming action, WIPNET dissolved. Gbowee continued her peace work, first becoming the Liberia Coordinator for the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding. She served on the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2006 she co-founded and then directed the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Ghana. WIPSEN Africa, as it is known, promotes women’s strategic participation and leadership in peace, security and governance throughout Africa, with a particular focus on Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
The actions of Gbowee and the Liberian women were publicized through the award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Gbowee continues to pray that the forces of evil are halted and supports the flowering of peace in places long plagued by war.