Based in Accra, Ghana, Leymah Roberta Gbowee grew up surrounded by the images of war – “men shooting at innocent people, men killing each other, men raping, men being the bad guys.” By the age of 17, she had come to realize that “if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers.” She believed that a woman knows her community and her society in the same special way that she knows her own home, and that to leave women out of peace negotiations made no sense. Gbowee is a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). During her tenure with that organization, she organized collaborative peace-building initiatives for women peace builders from nine of Liberia’s 15 counties. She helped bring an end to a seemingly intractable civil war by mobilizing Christian and Muslim women in a collaborative resistance movement that was able, through sit-ins and other acts of resistance, to get President Charles Taylor to meet with rebel groups at the peace table in Ghana and eventually agree to peace terms. Although the conflict in Liberia was not, on its surface, a religious conflict, it had a religious undertone, much as Gbowee characterizes the tension that existed when Christian and Muslim women came together. She realized that nothing would be accomplished unless that separateness could be bridged, and the way she did that was not by emphasizing differences but by taking as a starting point the one thing that the women in her group had in common – their womanhood. When a comfort level had been reached, the women began looking into the Koran and the Bible to study the precepts of each and to see what each said about male violence. What they learned was that, as women, they could not simply continue to be bystanders in the struggle for peace and could not hope to achieve anything if they remained divided. “Regardless of whom you pray to,” Gbowee says, “during war our experiences as a community and as mothers are the same. A bullet does not know a Christian from a Muslim.” In the period following the war, Gbowee’s women’s movement played an important role in demilitarization efforts and in providing valuable support to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in her successful campaign to become president of Liberia and the first elected female head of state in Africa. The story of Gbowee and her peacebuilding network is told in an award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
Since 2006, Gbowee has been executive director of Women in Peace and Security Network – Africa (WIPSEN – Africa), an organization that works with women in Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone to create positive change through peace activism, literacy, and electoral politics. She recalls the jeers and laughter that often greeted them at first, and how the same men who laughed at them would often come back to them later to report that an attack had taken place in the community and request that the women go there. This eventual acceptance of women as an active force for society is something that Gbowee has seen at international meetings as well. Particularly at UN meetings – and particularly when discussing issues of security and other male-dominated topics – the initial reaction of attendees has been, “What can she possibly offer?” By the end of the day, however, Gbowee finds a wholly different level of respect accorded her, with people approaching her to learn how they can best accomplish their objectives.
Since 2004, Gbowee has served as the commissioner-designate of the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In spite of the prestigious meetings she has attended in the US and other parts of the world throughout her career, she is most proud of her being recognized as a peace activist in villages in Liberia. When she started her peacebuilding work ten years ago, the biggest obstacle facing her group was credibility – the notion that, especially in Africa, she and those working with her were not serious people. To overcome this and have a real impact when talking about peace, Gbowee sees the need to engage three interconnected levels of actors: the government and international community, religious leaders, and the grass roots. She sees mobilizing the grass roots as being the most important focus because “all of the foot soldiers for rebel movements are recruited from there – they don’t come from the other two levels.” Gbowee has received the Blue Ribbon for Peace from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a “Leaders for the 21st Century” Award from Women’s eNews. She holds an M.A. in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.