Women's Refugee Commission Voices of Courage Award






Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for her role in ending the civil war in Liberia. She continues her peace and human rights activism through the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa.


Leymah Gbowee: "We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are taking this stand to secure the future of our children, because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, 'Mama, what was your role during the crisis?'"

Interview: What was it like growing up in Liberia?

I grew up in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, in a middle class neighborhood. Our family is from the Kpelle people, the largest ethnic group in the country. My community was very diverse, and had thirteen of Liberia’s sixteen ethnic groups. People coexisted very well. There was a respect for religious differences. People supported each other. Women were respected. As a child, I saw men stand up to other men who were known for battering their wives. Children belonged to the community—anyone could discipline you. But everyone loved you or showed you some form of affection. Growing up, my socialization was basically one of a peaceful world. It was the Liberian civil war that showed me the contrary.

How did the Liberian civil war and your displacement change your life and the life of your family?

The [first] civil war [1989 – 1996] brought many years of terror. Every day people were murdered before my eyes. Boys as young as seven or eight were recruited as child soldiers either by force or out of desperation and hunger. A common scene was a mother watching her young one being forcibly recruited or her daughter being taken away as the wife of another drug-emboldened fighter. One bloodbath took place in a church. The same pews where we once sang and prayed had turned to the scene that the soldiers used to rape, slash, shoot and hack. I fled with my relatives from one shelter to another, and many days we went hungry. We lived for a time in a mosquito-infested refugee camp in Ghana. I returned to Liberia in 1991, after a new interim government had formed, and saw utter devastation. Everyone had fled leaving their homes to the fighters, and anyone who returned to find their possessions gone went through the homes of others, taking whatever was left to grab. My life was smashed to nothing.

Why do you believe that it is women who suffer most during conflicts?

In my work as a social worker, I worked with the war-wounded ex-child soldiers of [President] Charles Taylor’s army. During my engagement with these boys, it became very clear how patriarchy first influenced their decision to join the rebellion. The other side to their stories is that while they proved their maleness by joining the rebellion, they also had to prove their maleness by taking in a wife or two and bringing her to a state of total submission. Many of the wives of these young men were forcibly taken, raped and beaten into submission. But the situation is not unique to Liberia. This is the everyday story of girls and women in conflict situations. Sexual violence is a norm and unfortunately, young boys and men trying to prove their maleness has become the status quo in conflict situations. Women are often the first victims of conflict. Besides rape and sexual violence, a lot of them are forced to flee the countries in which they live.

Why do you believe that women working together can create an unstoppable force?

The Liberian women’s peace movement demonstrated to the world that grassroots movements are essential to sustaining peace. I strongly believe that women in leadership positions are effective brokers for peace. I also believe in 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.

Tell us about the early days of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace coalition.

In 2003, a group of women from Christian and Muslim backgrounds gathered in a makeshift office to discuss the [second] Liberian civil war [1999-2003]. Armed with nothing but our conviction and a few United States dollars, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign was born. When women were reluctant to join the coalition, we asked them, “Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?” I called upon every able-bodied woman, regardless of her religion, social status or ethnic group. We campaigned outside mosques on Fridays, in the markets on Saturdays and outside churches on Sundays. The women carried banners and handed out flyers that read, “We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!” We also created flyers with simple drawings to draw in women who could not read.

You called on women to refuse to have sex with their husbands. Why do you think the sex strike was effective?

It had little or no practical effect. When we did the strike, some of the women who lived in Monrovia gave in. Some came back to the field [the site of protests] with bruises, saying that their husbands hit them when they said no. The strike lasted, on and off, for a few months. While it did not achieve the practical goal, it extremely valuable in getting us media attention. Even today, the first thing people ask is “What about the sex strike?”

Although the sex strike did not accomplish our goal, it was effective in the sense that it got people's attention. Sex is an exotic thing, and many people would say it's a taboo subject. But when someone dares to bring it to the attention of the public, it has two results. People start saying, "Who's this person doing this?" and they start asking why the person is using sex to highlight an issue. And it gets men thinking. There are a lot of good men out there! Good men outnumber evil men, but why are they usually silent? Our strategy helps the good men because it gives them a reason to take action. They start talking to their colleagues and beer buddies, saying, "This war is wrong." We withheld sex from our spouses to get attention, and our husbands obviously noticed what we were doing. We said, "We need you to take a stand." And they did.

Why were the public protests instrumental in leading Liberia to peace?

Once our coalition group numbered several thousand we took our protest to the government buildings and held daily sit-ins and protests. We began wearing white T-shirts so that we would be recognizable. We worked daily, confronting warlords, meeting with dictators and refusing to be silenced in the face of AK-47s. We walked when we had no transportation. We fasted when water was unaffordable. We held hands in the face of danger. We spoke truth to power when everyone else was being diplomatic. We stood under the rain and the sun with our children to tell the world the stories of the other side of the conflict. Our educational backgrounds, travel experiences, faiths and social classes did not matter. We had a common agenda: Peace for Liberia Now.

Soon it was no longer possible for Charles Taylor to ignore us and he agreed to a face-to-face meeting. I told him, “We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are taking this stand to secure the future of our children, because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’ ” After that, Charles Taylor promised he would hold peace talks. That was the beginning of the end of the war.

How has winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 changed your life?

I always say that I am a local girl with a global platform. The prize has led to the recognition that women play a pivotal role in peace-building at the grassroots level. Finally, our voice is recognized. I am one representative of the thousands of Liberian women who stood with me in the rain, sat with me in the sun and joined me in protest. I am deeply protective of the mantle I carry on their behalf. One man didn’t start the war and one woman didn’t end it. The Nobel Prize is a celebration and recognition of Liberian women’s effort to end the war. The prize has provided me a global platform to broaden the conversation about war, peace and stability. Women and girls have always been affected by war. The Nobel Peace Prize has helped all of our efforts to define true peace—one that is not only the absence of war but is inclusive of opportunity.