International Women´s Day: Interview With Leymah Gbowee
Javier Collado Ruano: Today, 8th March 2014, International Women´s Day, we have a special guess with us: Ms. Leymah Gbowee, President of Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along Ms. Tawakel Karman and Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Thank you very much to attend us and to share your time and some of your reflections between our readers in this special today.
Leymah Gbowee: Thank you very much to you Javier. The pleasure is mine.
JCR: As an inherent specialist in Human Rights, Woman Rights and Peacebuilding, do you think 90´ Liberian woman experiences is a good example of Human Rights and Gender flight for other countries around the world, especially in Africa?
LG: The Liberian women peace movement demonstrated to the world that grassroots movements are essential to sustaining peace; that women in leadership positions are effective brokers for peace; and the importance of culturally relevant social justice movements. Liberia’s experience is a good example to the world that women—especially African women—can be drivers of peace.
JCR: I believe you. When we met last month of September in Salvador de Bahía, Brazil, during your conferences “Fronteiras do Pensamento” (Boundaries of Thought), I felt all your enormous courage comes from your ideological convictions and specially from your role as Mum. Mother of six children, you said that social changes must be performed by mothers. What kind of message could we send today to support their role as engine of change of the world-society?
LG: There are three things women can do as engines of change. First at the family level, we have to go back to the space as mothers. We lay down the values and principles for our children; we show them what is right and how to care for others. Many times and in many places, mothers think of their children as friends, and don’t enforce the values and principles of healthy living, of leading a healthy life. Second, mothers understand the challenges and ills of their communities. They know what is wrong and what is right in their communities. It is incumbent upon mothers to work on the issues that can derail the safety of their communities; if left untouched, the values and principles of family are undermined. At the national level, mothers must keep their eyes open on the political dynamics because the personal is the political. Politics affect the prices in the market, the maternal mortality rate, whether our children can obtain a quality education. Politics even decide the reproductive rights of women. Therefore, we must ensure that our political representatives expand and protect our rights.
JCR: There are not doubts you see the world-society with a rich and interesting approach after your long theoretical and pragmatically experience. In this sense, how do you imagine the closed future? What are the hot points that human being should be focused to improve the current world?
LG: The issue of rights will continue to be a source of tension well into the future. If we look at the situation of conflict in many communities, a lot of it derives from individuals not respecting the rights of others whether its determining the sexuality of others or what happens to the bodies of people. We must recognize that the way you treat your neighbors extinguishes or ignites conflicts. Essentially, the hot point is: How do we respect the rights of individuals?
JCR: It is a good question and it is more interesting if we take a look to the humankind future. In fact, following some statistics from different studies, such as United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs inform of 2012, DESA, what kind of challenges we will have in 2050, for example, when the number of citizens arrive to 9,600 thousand of millions?
LG: There are two major challenges we now face that will continue to define our future: the environment and youth unemployment. The environment—specifically climate change— impacts the way we relate to the Earth and to each other. The scramble for environmental resources will continue to be a source of conflict exacerbated by youth unemployment. Our failure to provide meaningful opportunities for the youth makes conflict more attractive which has a destabilizing affect.
JCR: In this sense, it is also interesting to link your reflections with the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations (MDGs), because it is the first time in the history of humanity in which almost all the countries around the world signed deals to work together under the same premises. What do you think about them? Will we see them achieved any day?
LG: The Millennium Development Goals are an important effort to address issues of gender-parity, opportunity, and safety. However, the MDGs are a little too ambitious. Unfortunately, we will likely not achieve the MDGs according to the timeline. This is evidenced by the limited commitment of national governments to fund education and gender parity programs. Instead, competing interests often override the national political will to adhere to the MDG which further delays itsfull implementation.
JCR: Dear Ms. Gbowee, thank you very much for your time and inspiring words, it was a real pleasure for me to know you and also to share your reflections today, International Women´s Day.
LG: Your welcome, the pleasure was me.
MORE ABOUT THE PEACE NOBEL LAUREATE
Leymah Gbowee was born in 1972 in Monrovia, Liberia, and spent most of her formative years there, which at the time was one of the most modern and sophisticated cities in West Africa. Leymah attended private school, and was always a very driven and ambitious student. In high school she served as a senator in the student government and was on the honor roll. She had dreams of being a doctor, and in 1990, after graduating from high school, she planned to enroll in the University of Liberia to study medicine.
It was at this same time that a small group of rebels passed from the neighboring country of Cote d’Ivoire into a small county in northern Liberia. Led by a man named Charles Taylor, the rebels were starting a movement to overthrow the current Liberian president, Samuel Doe. Doe was a corrupt and violent man who had sharply divided the Liberian population along tribal identities. It was in the face of this discrimination and corruption that Taylor started his rebel movement to kick Doe and his followers out of their political offices.
As Taylor and his men advanced towards Monrovia, thousands of people became displaced as well as victims of rape, looting, and violence, by both government and rebel soldiers. Because Leymah’s father worked for the Liberian Security Agency in the US Embassy, he was able to send for his family, and they found safety there. As the situation in Liberia continued to deteriorate, Leymah, along with her mother and sisters, made plans to flee Liberia on a refugee boat that was headed for Ghana. They ended up in the Buduburam refugee camp, living among thousands of other displaced Liberians.
In 1991 there was a break in the fighting, and Leymah returned to Liberia. There she ran into a man named Daniel, whom she had met in Buduburam, and they began a relationship. Daniel and Leymah had four children together, but Daniel turned into an emotionally and physically abusive man. In an effort to gain back some independence and self-confidence, Leymah enrolled in a local social work program. There she received her social work certificate and began working with refugees of the Sierra Leone civil war, helping to heal them from the traumas of war. Leymah enjoyed her role in helping others to heal, and in an effort to also heal herself, left Daniel and moved back in with her parents.
Then, her work as a peace-builder really began. With the encouragement of her mother, Leymah returned to school and received her Associate of Arts Degree while volunteering with the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP). She worked with those in the rural communities who had suffered the worst acts of violence during the war; as well as with “Taylor’s Boys,” who where the children Taylor’s men had abducted and forced to become child soldiers.
Leymah’s work, especially with the women of her country, made her realize how important it was for women to have a voice in the peace process, and Leymah dreamed of a time when women would be called together to fight for peace. A friend of Leymah’s, who she had met through her trauma healing work, presented her with a life-changing opportunity to make this dream a reality.
Leymah’s friend, Thelma Ekiyor, had started an organization known as the Women in Peacebuilding Network, or WIPNET, and she asked Leymah to head the Liberian chapter. Leymah became their voice as the women of Liberia called for an end to the war. By this time, Taylor had been elected President of Liberia, but another rebel force had been carrying out attacks in and around Monrovia in an effort to overthrow him. There had now been violence in Liberia for roughly 14 years. The women of WIPNET decided they would not rest until peace was achieved. Leymah led several outreach campaigns to both Christian and Muslim women, which started the creation of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Movement. This movement brought thousands of women from all over the country to Monrovia day after day, wearing white and bringing signs declaring peace. The women of WIPNET staged a sit-in at a fish market by Capitol Hill, and told Taylor they would not move until he agreed to meet with them.
They sat for weeks, in the baking hot sun and pouring rain, until Taylor eventually set up a meeting. As WIPNET’s voice, Leymah was chosen to address Taylor. She called for an immediate end to the fighting, and the resumption of peace talks between Taylor and the rebels with oversight from an international organization. Taylor agreed to these conditions. Leymah and other other core WIPNET workers made the same plea to the rebels, who also agreed. In June, Leymah and other supporters traveled to Ghana where the peace talks were being held, and staged a sit in there as well. However, the news day after day was that the negotiations were stalled. Leymah eventually led the women inside to the meeting hall, looped arms, and created a blockade, not allowing anyone out until an agreement had been signed. This last effort changed the course of the peace talks and by August, West African peacekeeping troops had arrived in Liberia, intercepting thousands of dollars worth of weapons that were intended for Taylor. A few days later, Taylor resigned and went into exile in Nigeria.
Leymah’s work was instrumental in pushing Taylor into exile and smoothing the path for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election -Africa’s first female head of state. Gbowee has continued her work in peace and conflict resolution, and is now leading the Liberia Reconciliation Initiative, one of the six coordinating organizations that created and guides the roadmap of resolution. She is the President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, based in Monrovia, and also serves as the Executive Director of Women, Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa).