Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Laureate in 2011 and prominent Liberian peace activist who led women to enforce peace before the breakout of a second civil war took over the stage of the World Governments Summit in Abu Dhabi on February 10th to deliver a powerful speech on women’s empowerment. She remembered her journey in snatching peace in a conflict and violence ridden country, led by former president Charles Taylor, in a twelve-minute speech on stage.
Leading the peace protest of women in Liberia, Gbowee passed through many stages to stabilise peace, partly due to her establishment of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement. Restoring peace required sitting in the UN and meeting with powerful country leaders to try to reach a solution to the crisis. Encouraged by Liberian women, finally a peace agreement was signed off and the first female president, Ellen Sirleaf, rose to power in an unprecedented move in Africa’s history.
Gbowee included a pack of concepts about women’s experience through her approach to the handling of the civil war in her country. “The impact of conflict on women’s lives is the reflection of interaction during peace time,” she said. Recounting one interaction she had with a group of young soldiers who fought in the Liberian civil war, aged under 20, one of them was an amputated soldier. She asked him, “Did you rape anyone during the civil war?” and he replied, “No.” “I understood he hadn’t gotten my question,” she said. So she asked again, ”Did you force any woman to have sex with you during the war in Liberia?” He said, ‘Yes! Isn’t that what women are made for?” “You see the socialisation, how we interact in peace time? All of those subtle things we do that we take the rights of women away?” said Gbowee. “In many schools, children are given the picture that mothers cook. Mothers wash dishes. Mommies are teachers and nurses. Moms do not drive. They cannot reply to this because it is the social norm taught there,” she said.
When war came to Liberia, “250, 000 people were internally displaced, 500, 000 in refugee camps. When war came millions were displaced. There was infrastructural destruction that we are still struggling to rebuild. Rape and sexual violence were the order of the day. The soul of our nation, like any other nation that has gone to war, was ripped out.”
Gbowee argued a transformation was needed to stop new war. “Women decided we were going to protest for peace. We stepped out in white, sometimes with no shoes and no make-up, challenging the dictatorship.” “Creating strategies we were determined to carry through. This story is not unique to Liberia. It is from all other places in the world that have gone to conflict. ... in places across the world that have overcome war, women have stood up and said it’s time to do something,” she said.Success in implementing the peace process, led to another achievement in Liberia, as now, “We (Liberians) have strong anti-sexual harassment and inheritance laws. This was all done by women.” Gbowee said proudly.
In our country, said Gbowee, we have a song. “No longer are men in front, neither at the back. We walk side by side. When we leave out or ignore unique qualities that women bring to nation building, it’s like looking at things with one eye. Nation building process is not a one gender process.” Gbowee stressed. “Give women a chance and the nation will progress,” she said.
When the first bullet was fired, the first ones to think of humanitarian aid were women. “They stood up and said, ‘It is time for us to do something’,” said Gbowee. Women are supposed to be involved in the peace process. Gbowee said that enforcing peace was undertaken by women’s insistence on signing off a peace agreement. “80% of peace processes fail at the stage of agreements because people go out to celebrate. Women in Liberia were insistent that no, the order has changed.” She continued, “Our nation would not have gone from war to peace to two successive elections breaking a record of a 70 year transfer of power in 2017 had it not been for the hands and unique skills of women,” she continued. “Going back to the kitchen, going back to just taking care of our children is not an option anymore, transforming our societies and our world is the option.” “When we try to leave out the skills, the expertise and the unique qualities that women bring to nation building processes, it is like seeing with one eye covered," she argued.