Leymah Gbowee

When Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee and thousands of her countrywomen spent two years peacefully protesting the war in Liberia, they knew they were following in the footsteps of women who had gone before them. 

Gbowee was one of three women, including fellow Liberian, current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakul Karman of Yemen who were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize (October 7) for their roles, as women, waging peace in their countries.

Countries have “gotten very afraid of women’s non-violent protests,” Gbowee said at a breakfast meeting in New York City (October 17) . “Before they thought of us as toothless bulldogs. Now there is recognition that these toothless bulldogs have some power.”

The attention afforded these women by the Nobel spotlight has begun a global conversation about peace and women’s role in peacemaking. “There is no way peace can be negotiated without the skills of women,” said Gbowee.

Yet UN Resolution 1325, which requires parties in a conflict to respect women's rights and to support their participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction, is still not being implemented by countries from Afghanistan to Egypt.

Leymah GboweeThe truth is that women’s voices and women’s stories are still not being heard by those in power and those with the megaphones to amplify them. Gbowee told the story of how Lisa Schirch, director of the 3P Human Security, a civil society voice on US security policy, based at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, was in Ghana when Gbowee and a group of Liberian grassroots women surrounded the hall where the warlords were having peace talks and refused to leave until they completed their negotiations.

Schirch called NPR (National Public Radio) and a prominent university and told them what was happening. But no one wanted to cover the story, Gbowee said. The first time the story Liberia’s women was told was when Abigail Disney’s film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” was released in 2008. “Sirleaf would have gotten the Nobel Prize but there would be no Leymah on the list without Pray the Devil,” she said to the packed audience in New York.

Pam Hogan, executive producer of the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) series 'Women, War & Peace', who was interested in the story, said the challenge is that journalists only want to tell the stories about the men with the guns, not the “pathetic-looking” women in the field protesting the war.  Women who pick up guns get attention. But Gbowee said, “We wouldn’t set an example for our children if we joined the armed rebels.”

Sirleaf has been so busy over the last six years – helping to get Liberia’s debt forgiven, bringing electricity to the country, and working to keep the peace- there hasn’t been time to chart a course towards reconciliation, Gbowee said: “Until we sit as a people and start healing we will not move forward.”

Liberia is currently in the middle of an election where the divisions among the people are coming to the forefront. Former warlord and elected senator Prince Johnson won 60 percent of the vote in Nimba County, where he is from. Disappointingly people still see him as a hero.

“I’m hoping whoever wins the election will start the conversation around reconciliation,” said Gbowee. “We are at a place where we can’t go back to conflict.”

That is especially true after three women, two Liberians- President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Gbowee- and one Yemeni – Tawakul Karman- were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize (October 7) for their roles waging peace in their countries.

(Photos ©Michael Angelo)