Waging Peace: The Liberian Women's Experience
Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian activist who played a leading role in organizing women of different faiths and ethnicities to bring about an end to the civil war in her country in 2003. The story of their work is told in the movie Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Leymah spoke to AWID about the peace-building experiences of the women’s movement in Liberia.
By Kathambi Kinoti
AWID: The women's movement played a crucial role in responding to and resolving the long drawn out conflict in Liberia. What strategies and actions did you use?
LEYMAH GBOWEE: The movement used many non – violent actions and strategies; protests, picketing, media outreach, community sensitization on the role of women in advancing the peace agenda, coalition building, position statements and prayer vigils.
A major strategy that the women employed was daily evaluation and review of activities to document successes, challenges and lessons learned. These daily meetings also served as a space for members of the movement to vent their anger and frustration about both personal and collective issues. This was extremely helpful in that we didn’t have a spill over of issues from previous days.
AWID: Women are not homogenous; they have the same religious, ethnic or class identities that feed conflict. Yet the women's movement in Liberia demonstrated a unity of cause. How did you manage to do this?
LG: Women have been socialized for decades to believe that they cannot work together. However, from my experience - which has reinforced my belief - women work better as a group than with men or alone. In the case of the Liberian women, the work was effective because we went through a period of “resocialization”. Our identities that have so often been used to promote conflict were used to promote and enhance peace and togetherness using simple campaign messages. For example we used this message to enhance our religious identity: “Does the bullet know a Christian from a Muslim?”
These messages and focus group discussions helped women understand that it wasn’t about a particular group or sect but about us as women, mothers and nurturers of society.
AWID: What other factors contributed to your success?
LG: Another factor that contributed to our success was that we were focused on our goal; we didn’t get distracted. During the course of our peace campaign, many opportunities presented themselves for us to get involved in different issues such as HIV/ AIDS and female genital mutilation. We decided we would continue to work on ending the violence before taking on any other time-consuming issue.
A third factor was the leadership. There was a well structured leadership chain and tasks were distributed without anyone usurping the other’s authority. Fourthly our message was clear, concise and to the point. The message was never duplicated or added to,
AWID: What were some of the internal and external challenges that the movement encountered?
LG: Internally we faced religious fanaticism. Some Christians felt praying with Muslims would “dilute” their faith. They constantly reminded us about passages in the Bible like “What fellowship does darkness have with light?” Muslim women in the group were criticized by some from within the Muslim community, as being “street women” for involving themselves in political activities.
Another challenge we faced was the rural-elite divide. For many years the women’s movement in Liberia was led by groups of educated urban based women. Our campaign was the first to be made up of predominantly rural women. During the campaign there were tensions about one group usurping the space and recognition of the other.
Externally, politicization of the group was a major challenge. As elections approached we were constantly fighting to remain neutral and focused.
AWID: How has the Liberian women's movement been involved in addressing the aftermath of the conflict?
LG: Women’s groups in Liberia have been working at three distinct levels in the nation’s post conflict recovery process. They are involved in social services, advocacy and socio-economic development.
In the area of social services, various groups are involved in the provision of services to girls and women affected by conflict through relief assistance; medical care, skills training and counseling. On the advocacy front, women’s groups are advocating for the advancement and protection of women’s rights in Liberia. Today, there are key laws in the books as a result of the advocacy efforts of women’s groups. There is a law against rape and an inheritance law, and currently women’s groups led by the Association of Female Lawyers (AFELL) are drafting the “Fairness Bill”, which seeks to ensure affirmative action in all of Liberia’s policies.
Women have always been the major bread winners for their families through farming and small scale micro enterprises. Since the end of the civil war, women have returned to these activities with renewed vigor as many of them are single parents.