Seeing opportunities, not problems!
She is back in Oslo for a couple of intense days for the annual Business for Peace Summit, setting time aside for us to talk; back where she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
She is tired and jetlagged. And no wonder. She had more than 300 travelling days last year. Since becoming part of the small exclusive group of female Nobel Peace Prize laureates, her life has consisted of travels, speeches, public appearances and loads of attention.
"I have always been a do-er. I would rather have ten women protesting outside a building than fifty academics sitting inside of it writing papers."
- Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize laureate 2011.
She is building up a new programme for women, peace and security at Columbia University in the US. And at the same time, contributing to the struggles of building the headquarter for the womens peace movement in Monrovia. Her life didn´t start like this.
Trauma Healing and Social Work
She grew up with struggles, learning first-hand the costs of trauma, harassment, violence, poverty, war and refugee life. She was only 17 years old when the civil war in Liberia broke out. Faith, powerful mentors and women leaders combined with seeing the direct costs and traumas of the war mobilised her. Trauma healing and social work became her arena, with focus on reintegrating and rehabilitating traumatised victims, including child soldiers. But she also realised that healing the wounds of the war was not enough – the war had to be stopped.
With the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) set up in Liberia and Leymah as the coordinator, they started mobilising for peace. They went to marketplaces, mosques and churches with simple messages wanting the war to stop:
Working across religious and ethnic lines, Gbowee gathered thousands of Christian and Muslim women. And for illiterate women, they made simple drawings explaining their message. Little by little they became more visible. And gradually, women joined in.
An Army of Women
In 2002, Leymah Gbowee led the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, and gathered thousands of women to daily protests against President Charles Taylor. The women wore simple, white T-shirts as a symbol of peace, - an army of women in white T-shirts. They did not relent when Taylor banned the demonstrations and warned them against criticising the government.
Leymah Gbowee believes in being practical. Where many others see difficulties and obstacles in peace-building, I work with the opportunities, she says. So, to put pressure on the warring factions, they took the building where peace talks took place “hostage” by blocking the exit and threatening to undress and embarrass the men. They prayed for peace, using Muslim and Christian prayers, held nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from the president. Other tools chosen were threats of curses; occupying soccer stadiums; women pushing their men to take oaths of non-violence in churches and mosques, or probably the best known: the sex ban or strike. It probably didn´t have much practical effect, she says, but it was a brilliant media strategy.
In the beginning, the media was not interested in writing about our protests, Leymah recalls. They called us insane, and said that we were out in the streets, screaming, because we had taken the "madness pill". Then, one of the Muslim members of our organisation came up with an idea. Why not arrange a sex strike?
We got a lot of attention, and thousands of women all over the country took part in the campaign, Leymah says.
So, through public pressure, and most of all pressure from women, mobilisation and numerous practical creative protest tools, the warring factions were finally pressurised into peace talks and a peace agreement in August 2003. And President Charles Taylor was forced into exile.
After the peace agreement was signed, Leymah´s network worked towards encouraging greater voter turnout by Liberian women. They babysat children and minded women’s stalls in the market square while the women went to register to vote. Small, collective actions made it possible for more women to participate in the election in 2005. And after the election, Liberia gained Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In Liberia, women were now a part of the solution. Through peaceful acts of solidarity, Leymah had, and still has, a leading role in achieving equality in Liberia. It is about being practical, she says: “You have to identify the openings and opportunities and then expand and use those.”
So, is today´s #metoo campaign such an opening? Leymah says she supports any method to highlight and stop the abuse of women. She supports anything that encourage equality and a woman's right to be a woman, so therefore also #metoo. What I don't support, she says is the celebrity culture that surrounds this kind of activism. It turns what is a real-life situation for women into a question of trending. If celebrities were so concerned with abuse of women why do they not make it possible for more shelters to expand? Shelters to get funding? And what solution is it to an ordinary woman in Africa, whose sisters are all unemployed, to hashtag metoo if the effect is unemployment, there are still no shelters and nothing will change? Look also at the #bringbackourgirls campaign. After a couple of weeks, the hashtag went away, but the problems remained. While the attention shifted to #metoo, mothers in Nigeria are still crying for their daughters. It's great to highlight problems, but you also need to follow through. We need to change the structures, remove double standards and expand a real understanding of equality, Leymah says.
I consider myself blessed who can still work on a grass root level and do the same things as I did before, she says.
"After the Nobel Peace Prize, my work has a whole new meaning – I have a new platform to work from, which is a privilege, but it all boils down to being practical if you want to change the world. And if leaders want to build trust, they must show themselves trustworthy: say what you mean and mean what you say!"
That is indeed what she does, the fearless LeymahGbowee.
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