“If you have unshakable faith in yourself, in your sisters and in the possibility of change, you can do almost anything” so said the said the Liberian social activist Leymah Gbowee in her book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. After listening to an inspiring interview of Liberia’s outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I felt compelled to do a little digging into the country’s history to observe her path to becoming Africa’s first woman in the presidential office, a journey made possible by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, led by the single mother Leymah Gbowee. I am ashamed that I was ignorant of so monumental a peace movement, run by ordinary women, what would have such far-reaching, lasting consequences not only for Africa, but for the international political community as a whole.
It is worth here giving a brief outline of Liberia’s history, the West African country emerging from a colony of American ex-slaves in the 19th century, only to gain its independence as the Republic of Liberia thirty years later. For decades, the political sphere was dominated by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the freed slaves that migrated there decades before, leading to growing tensions among the indigenous community who felt they were being neglected and cheated by the ruling class. This state of affairs continued until the president William Tolbert was killed in a military coup led by Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, whose leadership – the result of a fraudulent election – was violent and bloody, swiftly publicly executing members of Tolbert’s cabinet after his rise to power. During his rule, another uprising occurred, led by Charles Taylor sparking a long and bloody civil war, after which he was elected president. Throughout his leadership, he was accused of supporting the perpetration of the torture, rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of innocent citizens, many of whom were displaced from their homes, the principal victims being women and children.
It was this 14 year long civil war that compelled Leymah Gbowee to action, herself a single mother and social worker working with UNICEF to counsel those who had been traumatized by war, putting her into contact with some of the most vulnerable members of Liberian society, some of whom were ex-child soldiers. In 2002, she reported having a dream in which God spoke directly to her, telling her to gather the women of Liberia together to lobby for peace and an end to the fighting and hostilities that had caused untold suffering and devastation to thousands or innocent, ordinary people like herself. She begun at her Church, forming the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace whose supporters demonstrated continually at a local fish market with signs and placards, all dressed in white as a symbol of peace, strategically choosing the route they knew the president to take everyday on his way to and from work. Significantly, Muslim women made up a large part of the assembly, Gbowe credited with uniting women across cultural divides in the name of peace and prosperity for Liberia and the future of their children.
Suffice it to say, the movement grew to encompass thousands of women, eventually succeeding in making direct contact with the president when Gbowee issued a speech to Taylor, refusing to turn her back to him, where she declared “We [the women of Liberia] are tired of war. We are tired of running…We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children”. Later, peace talks would be held in Ghana following pressure from the international community as well as the women’s movement, an event attended by many supporters of Gbowee’s cause. After weeks of seeing little change, the women staged a sit-in at the presidential palace where they prevented anyone in attendance from leaving until a satisfactory outcome had been reached, Gbowee resisting arrest by threatening to strip naked as, in her words, “You [they] have taken all of this from me, I’m giving you [them] the last bit of my pride”, whereupon they released her. Not long afterwards, a peace deal was reached and Charles Taylor was exiled and imprisoned in Nigeria charged with crimes against humanity throughout his six year presidency.
Many argue that is was largely the work of these brave, inspiring women that facilitated the election of Africa’s first woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, often credited with stabilizing a country that had for years been in the grip of violence and corruption.
Sirleaf is herself another inspiring woman in Liberia’s political history; a victim of an abusive relationship and imprisoned twice for opposing the government Johnson Sirleaf still managed to ascend to the presidency through democratic election, going on to implement free primary education for Liberia’s children, attract valuable foreign investment, promote equal rights for women and stabilize a country long at war, though she has been the recipient of fierce criticism for tolerating corruption within the presidential circle as well as nepotism. It is unsurprising, then, that both Sirleaf and Gbowee are recipients of the Nobel Peace prize for their work in fighting for social justice and peace for their country despite all of the odds that seemed to work against their favour.
These women provide us with clear proof of the strength and grace of ordinary women, show us that women wield extraordinary power both as individuals but, more importantly, as a unit. When women put on a united front, there is little they cannot achieve, as Liberia’s Women’s movement demonstrates. Ladies, stand up.