Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee speaks at the Interchurch Center, Friday, October 7, 2011, in New York. Leymah Gbowee confronted armed forces in Liberia to demand that they stop using rape as a weapon. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)
Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian who mustered her desperate, angry countrywomen into a peace movement that helped bring down the violent regime of their president Charles Taylor, is steadily attracting international attention as one of Africa’s most powerful voices for profound social change.
“We used our pains, broken bodies and scarred emotions to confront the injustices and terror of our nation,” Gbowee said in a speech after receiving the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. “We were aware that the end of the war will only come through nonviolence.”
It would seem an improbable achievement for a woman who hit bottom more than once beginning in her early 20s. Gbowee, a bright student from a middle-class family whose university education was derailed by civil war and social chaos, drifted into single motherhood with four unplanned pregnancies under impossibly difficult circumstances as the country disintegrated around her. As hope ran out, she turned to alcohol.
Yet by the age of 39, she was in Oslo sharing the Nobel Prize with two other pioneering women, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist and rights activist. The three of them were honored “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Gbowee’s story is a dramatic one. In 2003, after Liberia suffered twelve years of war and at least 200,000 deaths, she and her colleagues in the Women in Peacebuilding Network led hundreds of women into the streets. By then Taylor’s regime was under attack from a new rebel army, equal in its grotesque brutality. With the help of a woman in the Liberian police, who tipped her off to the president’s travels around the Liberian capital, Monrovia, and a female radio host who called out the “troops” of women dressed in white and carrying home-made placards demanding peace, Gbowee assembled a huge crowd along the president’s daily route, on a field near a fish market where Gbowee once played soccer. The women chanted, danced and sang, often repeating a hypnotic singsong mantra: “Liberia is my home. Liberia is my home.”
When Taylor agreed, finally, to hear a public petition from the women, a group of them surged toward the presidential palace, with Gbowee, a social worker, in the lead. The president eventually agreed to talks, held in neutral Ghana.
“This is the day the Lord has made and I and my sisters globally will rejoice and be glad in it,” she told the who’s who audience in her Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo on December 10. Her faith and her church, she said in an interview in New York in June, had played a big part in pulling her through the low points in her life. But also, it would appear, did her formidable character, grounded in the African communities she now hopes to serve with new vigor and clout, both through a foundation she is establishing and as part of Liberia’s truth and reconciliation process. Gbowee has not always been in tune with her fellow Liberian laureate President Sirleaf, the first woman in Africa to be elected head of state. In 2007, Gbowee was opposed to Sirleaf’s support for a plan by the United States to base its newly formed Africa command, known as Africom, in Liberia. The project, which Sirleaf saw as a money-earner for a country that was broke and broken, never materialized, after Liberia’s West African neighbors, led by the regional power, Nigeria, made it clear they did not want American troops in the region.