by Sara Belhay
Challenging the status quo in Liberia
Leymah Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, for leading a non-violent women’s movement to end the second civil war in Liberia. At the time of the outbreak, Leymah Gbowee was a social worker at the ‘Trauma Healing’ project, which was initiated in response to the damage left from the first civil war. Women largely saw peacebuilding as the work of men, and so Gbowee sought to redefine the role of women and ensure women’s voices were heard. Gbowee recruited women from different spheres of civil society, targeting the mosques on Friday, markets on Saturday and churches on Sunday. Flyers were handed out that read ‘We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up- you have a voice in the peace process!’ In order to create an inclusive movement, religion, class and social differences were side-lined in favour of their shared identity as women.
Although Gbowee encouraged the women to see beyond their identity as wives and mothers, Gbowee strategically adopted techniques that played to the gender conventions in Liberia to support her cause. The women appealed to President Charles Taylor as mothers, in Gbowee’s address to him, she stated ‘we believe as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’
In addition to this, the women abstained from sex to persuade the men to end the violence. Although Gbowee reflects that this had little practical effect, it did successfully garner international media coverage which further propelled the women’s movement. When the peace talks were at risk of breaking down yet again, Gbowee instructed two hundred women to link arms and sit outside the room in which the talks were taking place. When leaders of the rebel groups tried to leave, Gbowee threatened to strip naked, which traditionally in Africa, is considered a curse if an elderly or married woman deliberately exposes herself, as it symbolises taking back the life given to men. After peace was brokered, attitudes towards women changed, paving the way for the election of Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
At present, Gbowee is the founder and president of Gbowee Peace Foundation, which provides educational and leadership opportunities to girls and women in West Africa. Gbowee is also is a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning and serves on the Board of Directors of the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the PeaceJam Foundation.
‘Are you a bystander?’
Earlier this month, I attended the annual PeaceJam conference at the University of Winchester, where Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee addressed over two hundred attentive youth, asking: ‘What are the things that keep you up at night, that disgust you?’ From discussing bullies to racism, Gbowee referred to the concerns that young people often approach her with: ‘You may be against all these things, but unless you take action, you are just a bystander.’ As a human rights and women’s rights activist, Gbowee is committed to taking action when she witnesses injustice.
Gbowee recalled an incident whereby she witnessed a 14-year-old boy harassing a young girl stood in a group. The other girls were howling with laughter and as the boy left, he took the sunglasses off this girl, snapped them and threw them in to the trash, and said take it from there because you are trash. Gbowee walked over and confronted the girls, asking who the best friend was. When the girl who had laughed the hardest raised her hand, Gbowee replied ‘who needs enemies when this girl has got a friend like you’. Gbowee talked to the girls about feminism and sisterhood, with the message that there will always be people there to stand up for you, and there will always be women who will be your sisters in the face of patriarchy.
Determined to confront the boy, Gbowee sought him out and challenged his behaviour towards the girl. When asked if he had any sisters, the boy replied yes. Gbowee instructed the boy to question his actions and ask himself, ‘would this upset me if someone did this to my sister?’ The lesson Gbowee taught the boy was that making others feel bad for your own inadequacies, would not be tolerated by people.
Gbowee recruited women from different spheres of civil society, targeting the mosques on Friday, markets on Saturday and churches on Sunday. Flyers were handed out that read ‘We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up- you have a voice in the peace process!’
‘Don’t hide in the shadows of low self- esteem’
Gbowee declared to the audience, if you want to live and enjoy life, you have to at some point make a stand. Gbowee divulged to the youth that after leaving an abusive relationship, Gbowee returned to education but had such low self-esteem, she never participated in class, despite knowing the answers. When Gbowee received a grade F for a piece of work she knew deserved a grade A, she challenged the teacher that marked the paper. The teacher apologised and revealed that because Gbowee never participated in class, the teacher assumed Gbowee did not know the answers and therefore automatically graded the paper badly. Gbowee highlights this event as the start of a journey in which she would use her voice to speak truth to power. Addressing the audience, Gbowee said to the audience that if you want to taste freedom, keep walking as life with all its complexities will never offer you what you want unless you step up and take it.
‘I challenge you to take the open mind challenge’
Gbowee spoke of the divisions that exist in society and the prevailing ‘us v them’ narrative. Quentions around racism and identity kept re-occurring at the conference. One school student originally from the Philippines asked Gbowee how to respond to bullies without resorting to violence. Gbowee probed what the boy’s aspirations were in life and instructed him ‘respond to what you are and not what you are called’. Gbowee’s parting message to the young people was to take the open mind challenge. Gbowee urged the young people to break down the barriers that exist in society, and talk to people you wouldn’t ordinarily talk to.
‘One Billion Acts of Peace Movement’
PeaceJam’s ‘One Billion Acts of Peace’ campaign is an international movement that encourages people around the world to take action and provide solutions to the planet’s most pressing issues, as identified by Nobel Peace Laureates. Students at the PeaceJam conference were invited to present their projects to Leymah Gbowee. It was not only inspirational to see the fantastic projects delivered by young people, but also inspirational to see their reactions to other student projects, and further cemented the idea that anyone can make change. The lessons learnt at the PeaceJam conference were evident in the enthused faces of two hundred students. The students had accepted Gbowee’s open mind challenge and they were no longer going to be bystanders, but instead active agents of change, committed to standing up against injustice.