Wonder Women: Leymah Gbowee
WONDER WOMEN CAN COME FROM ALL BACKGROUNDS, INDUSTRIES, AND FROM ALL CORNERS OF THE WORLD. THEY NEED TO BE CELEBRATED AND WE THOUGHT WE’D ROUND UP A SELECTION OF WOMEN WE CAN TALK ABOUT, APPLAUD AND BE INSPIRED BY TODAY.
Next up on our Wonder Women Series is Leymah Gbowee. Following on from poignant and uplifting discussion worldwide on 100 years of the vote, and the Time's Up and #MeToo campaigns, Leymah's influence highlights how important it is to mobilise the voices, impact and power of united women.
To give you some background to Leymah's extraordinary life so far, this inspiring woman received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 after leading a women's peace movement that changed the course of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, after 14 years of fighting, widespread brutality and systematic rape. Leymah decided the violence had to stop and had a dream to gather the women. It started with just 7 women and 10 US Dollars, but soon gathered momentum, with 2500 women supporting her. Through campaigning, hard-work, and staging nonviolent protests and pray-ins, Leymah was able to mobilise an inter-religious coalition of Christian and Muslim women and establish the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Movement. Leymah realised that after 14 hard years of civil war, she needed the right language to mobilise women; the language of peace. With this, Leymah hoped to shock, subvert and destabilise the patriarchal order, with its ruling language of war.
Leymah's peaceful campaigning ignited a united, strong, and impressionable front for the women of Liberia, and secured high-level peace talks with Liberian president of the time Charles Taylor. Rather than lasting 3 weeks as anticipated, however, the peace talks lasted at least 3 months. In this time Leymah was threatened and they even attempted to arrest her. Her reaction? To take off her clothes before they could take her to prison. And yes, this peaceful act stopped them in their tracks. She may have been giving away every last bit of her pride, but as she explains in the clip below, she was in control. She wanted to subvert the norm where women were used to their clothes being forcibly removed in rape. This non-violent pressure eventually did then led to Charles Taylor's exile, which in turn allowed for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's election as Africa's first female head of state in 2016.
Leymah's influence upon making a better life for women, and establishing peace, continues to grow. She is a founding member and former coordinator for Women in Peacebuilding/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP); as well as a co-founder for the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa) to promote cross-national peace-building efforts and encourage women, who were once victims of war, to participate in mobilising armies for peace. Not only this, Leymah is also now the founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa based in Liberia and The Young Girls Transformative Project, which provides educational and leadership opportunities to girls, women and youth in West Africa.
Leymah's campaigning during the Civil War emphasises how much power mobilising women can have. Sadly, for so many intelligent girls the vision of a great future is just a dream in the face of vices; abuse, prostitution and teen pregnancy. Her words have such resonance with the recent Time's Up and #MeToo campaigns, which once again have been recognised at the BAFTA awards with guests wearing black. As Leymah suggests, it's not just in Africa that women's voices need to be heard, it's the world over.
Leymah's words and actions have made us reflect upon many things. To conclude on one final thought, however, how true is it that our language has undercurrents of violence whether we realise it or not? As Leymah describes, we talk about "fighting for peace". Yet, this has blatant connotations of killing, terror, and "fighting" involved to reach peaceful ends. Is it that we are missing a language of peace? Is it that we not only need to unlock the greatness of women and girls the world over, but that we also need to unlock a new language in order to achieve this - to truly transform the world, the ingrained views, violence, and patriarchy, and open up more opportunities for them?
Rather than channel hatred for what has passed and what terrible situations people the world over may be in, there is a lot to be said for harnessing passion and harnessing this sense of anger instead. Hatred is intrinsically linked to violence, whereas anger doesn't have to be. As Leymah describes, hate really is poisonous. It's corrosive and has no momentum. Anger, meanwhile, has emotion and an energy that can be mobilised and carried forward for the greater good. Just as Leymah has already proved.
Words by Lottie Franklin