Nobel winner Leymah Gbowee speaks out on peace, women, and leadership

Leymah Gbowee's Women Peace and Security Network Africa came out of her confrontation with Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. Now she's sharing this year's Nobel Peace Prize with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen's Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
Leymah Gbowee addresses a Columbia Business School conference in New York. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Oct. 7 with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen's Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman.

Leymah Gbowee, one of this year's three women recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, knows how to get a message across.

In 2002, in the midst of Liberia's second civil war, she helped organize more than 3,000 Christian and Muslim women to peacefully protest the conflict. The women also vowed to stop having sex with their husbands until the violence ceased.

The creative, public demonstrations led to a meeting with Liberia's then-president and warlord, Charles Taylor. In response, he committed to opening peace talks with the rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, in Ghana. The war ended in 2003, the same year Mr. Taylor was exiled and indicted with war crimes by the Special Court of Sierra Leone.

Today Ms. Gbowee, a citizen of Liberia, continues her social justice work. She established the Women Peace and Security Network Africa in Accra, Ghana, in 2007.

In an in-person interview at the United Nations headquarters in New York in June 2010, Gbowee discussed the impacts of allowing women to have substantial roles in conflict, post-conflict, peace, and reconciliation talks and in decisionmaking bodies. She also explained why women around the world still remain largely unrepresented in these processes.

Monitor: How did your experiences in Liberia push you to go on to work in Ghana and other countries? What are your main objectives?
Gbowee: After working with the women in Liberia for a number of years, I realized that peace building, peace activism, and women’s role in that process was where I wanted to be. It was a calling for me.

But also I had gotten to that place in Liberia, especially as it relates to grass-roots movements, where I needed to step out of that space and gain greater experience, because my thinking was getting a little bit too local. Two colleagues and I decided to start a regional women’s peace and security organization.... [Because of] restrictions, and donors, we needed countries that were stable, have frequent flights, and all of those requirements made Ghana the most suitable place for us to settle….

Currently, our work is set structurally around three thematic issues: gender in the security sector and reform process, rural women peace and security initiatives, and youth security and development initiatives.

One of those areas I find myself being pulled to more is working in the area of youth, security, and development, specifically with the young girls’ leadership projects.

What are the greatest tangible benefits to having women be directly involved in political processes?

The first benefit is debunking all of the stereotypes about women’s involvement in political processes. The second benefit is this renewed energy: Women’s involvement in these processes creates a sense of hope that we are moving away from the old order and we are going toward a new order. I have seen that in a lot of these communities when these women rise up and decide, ‘This is the way I want it to go.’

Thirdly, the other thing I have seen is just the mere fact that women are stepping out of their traditional roles, it creates a sense of urgency with political leaders. You see that anxiousness from the male counterparts, that, "We have to do something, or else it is going to be taken from us."

In 2003 you went before then-President Charles Taylor to call for peace in Liberia and for women's involvement in the peace process. How do you think progress for including women in peace processes has evolved since then?
I haven’t really seen a big change … progress has been really, really slow. You’d think that we have more women mediators, more women at the negotiation tables, and the general assumption is the

UN has done it over and over, and it would be getting it right, but I haven’t really seen that yet.

You still have women advocating for their involvement at the peace table and then you wonder, "Do they really take any of these recommendations seriously?" There have been some little, snail-paced strides they have made in terms of bringing stronger legislation against rape and sexual violence, and you could see now more special requests being made for women in the UN missions. So those kinds of little things you see, but there is still a lot more that could be done.

What would it take to accelerate progress? Another massive sit down strike?
We as women activists, globally, really ... need to sit down as a constituency and say, "This is where we are, this is where we want to go in the next two, three years." The language we need to speak should be the same at every level from Europe to Africa to America.

Liberia is the first African country to have a female president [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient]. Do you think this positions Liberia a leader for other African countries?
A female president within herself doesn’t change institutionalized patriarchal structures. We still have more men in parliament, we still have more men at the ministerial level. And you also need to remember one thing, because we still have an educational gap – for the past 14 years of war women did not predominately sit in the space of learning. So we still have those challenges we need to overcome.

When you went to see Charles Taylor, you were just in your early 30s. What was going through your head at that moment?
Pure, raging anger.... [I thought] "This one man, this one person, is responsible for the death and destruction of so many people and is responsible for the backwardness of this country. This one man, he sits here without any remorse, and I have to make this statement right because I may never have this chance to tell him off again."

Did he look you in the eye?
He had on dark glasses.

• For more information, visit the Women Peace and Security Network Africa.

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