Leymah Gbowee (1972-present) is most famous for her role in
leading women in peaceful protests against the war in Liberia.
These protests contributed to bringing peace to Liberia. She is also a qualified counsellor who has worked to support children who were soldiers.
14 July 2020, Laura Webb
Leymah Gbowee was born in 1972 on the edge of Monrovia the capital of Liberia. She is a member of the Kpele tribe indigenous to Liberia unlike the many African-Americans who came to Liberia in the 1800s. Her family were Christian and were involved in St. Peter’s, the largest Lutheran church in Liberia. In 1989, she finished school aged 17 and had intended to attend university and then to become a doctor. However, the Liberian Civil War war broke out in 1989, and this prevented her from going to university.
President Doe’s state military were fighting against rebels led by Thomas Quiwonkpa who was trying to take power. People from the Mano and Gio tribes supported the rebels. As fighting in Monrovia grew, Leymah Gbowee’s family and many others took refuge in St. Peter’s Church but government soldiers came and held them hostage. On the 28 July, Gbowee’s uncle came to take her and her family. Her uncle persuaded a soldier to allow him to take Gbowee, her mother and some other relatives. The next day, 29 July 1990, government soldiers came into the church and killed almost everyone there, at least 600 people died.
After what happened in the church, Gbowee was angry with God and angry with society. With her partner and their children, she fled to a refugee camp in Ghana but her partner was abusive and eventually she fled with her children back to Monrovia. She found out about a UN organisation that was training counsellors to support those traumatised by war; she trained and worked in Monrovia, counselling young people who had been child soldiers. In 1997, the First Liberian Civil War ended and Charles Taylor became president but in 1999 the Second Liberian Civil War began. Many people were being tortured, mutilated and killed because of the civil war. Gbowee joined the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) and quickly became leader.
One night, she had a dream: she dreamt that she felt rain, and heard a voice telling her to wake, gather women of the churches and pray for peace. She told some women in her church that they had to do something to stop the war. To start with her protest group had seven women and $100USD, but over time the group grew in size, and collaborated with a Muslim partner. The group was Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace and worked with the support of WIPNET. Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace was made up of women of different ethnic and religious groups who wanted peace in Liberia. They wore white and protested peacefully, they prayed, they fasted, they picketed at markets and in front of government buildings. One day, Gbowee took Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace to protest on an airstrip, somewhere she knew that President Charles Taylor passed every day on his way to work. She wanted him to see their protest, but after three days the President stopped going to work. So Gbowee took a group of over 2500 women to see him. President Taylor said he would only see 10 of them, but Gbowee insisted that he come and see them all. At the meeting she did not criticise the president, she thinks this confused him. Instead she said to him “We are tired of running, we are tired of war, we are tired of begging for bulgar wheat, we are tired of our children being raped.” She also delivered a letter to him.
Eventually peace talks were arranged to end the war. The talks took place in Ghana and Gbowee led a delegation of members of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace to the peace talks. They protested outside, for a long time, but the war was getting worse and they were running out of food. The peace talks were only supposed to take 3 weeks, and it was already nearly 3 months! Finally, the women had had enough. They made a circle round the outside of the building where the talks were taking place; they said that no one could leave the building until they agreed peace. Security came to stop and to break up the circle, they would arrest Gbowee. When security came towards Gbowee, she told them she would undress and began to remove her clothes. The security were scared, according to traditional beliefs it could have brought misfortune on the men, they left. Partly because of the protests led by Gbowee, three weeks later, a peace agreement was reached and the civil war ended (2003).
In 2011 Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize shared with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (President of Liberia 2006-2018) and Tawakkol Karman (who protested for women’s rights to full participation in democracy in Yemen). Prize motivation: "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."
Gbowee continues to work for peace, she is the founder of the Gbowee Peace Foundation African which works to ensure “that younger generations in Liberia are peaceful, reconciled, and empowered.”.
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