Ordinary Women Doing the Impossible

Ordinary Women Doing the Impossible
(Women Peace Activists Find a Way to End War)

By Hwaa Irfan

When one sees or hears of history repeating itself, when a country plunges itself into the seemingly unending nightmare of civil war, and barbarism ensues, the anguish can be intolerable. More intolerable it is to be caught up in the middle of such a war, as abuse on a wide scale sets in. Liberia is one such case, with the exception that it was ordinary women, Christians, and Muslims together, who changed the fate of their country.

The Place

Liberia is a country of 5,000 square miles in West Africa. Before the civil war it was a country rich in culture, and natural resources, with large doses of hospitality.

Liberia was a main supplier of rubber to the Allied Forces in WWI, and the U.S.’s main entry point to West Africa. As a puppet state for the U.S., 12 of its presidents were born in the U.S.

A country of two cultures, one indigenous, and the other African American, came into being as such when slavery was being outlawed in the U.S. Colonization societies seized on an African-American call for repatriation to Africa, and sent free slaves to Liberia as well as set up settlements for them. Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee described the relationship between the two peoples as follows:

      “Well, for the record, Liberia was not colonized. It was just a place where they sent the freed slaves back. But, when they came back, what damage did they do? What has happened over the period is the distortion of our history. When someone say that Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed slaves, as prior to the coming of the freed slaves there were indigenous people there.

“So you start a history from the arrival of [freed slaves]. And then [this] group of people came, and did to the indigenous people exactly what was done to them in [the United States]. They had separate schools for Americo-Liberians and the indigenous. They had separate churches. The indigenous people became their slaves, their house girls and boys. These people came with resources from America, and they were imposed on the indigenous people. So it’s like you come into my house, and I give you food, drink and water, and what you proceed to do is to box me into a corner, and say this is yours corner, you can’t take this side of the room because you have more resources.

“The [social] inequality, the unequal distribution of wealth, all of the laws, practices, principles and values that they brought back just clashed with everything they met there. And over time, it has always been indigenous people saying we have to take back [Liberia]. That taking back has been one of the reasons [Liberians have] had the problems we’ve had over the last fourteen years”.

The Conflict

From 1989 – 2003 there had been two civil wars. An estimated 200,000 Liberians had been killed as a result of a conflict that began with the adversarial relationship between President Samuel Doe (1951 – 1990), and President Charles Taylor (1948 – ). Although appointed by Doe to run the General Services Agency, Taylor was to face accusation of embezzlement, and was imprisoned by the U.S. Awaiting extradition, Taylor escaped a year later in 1985. By the mid-1990’s Taylor was in control of most of Liberia. With a 15,000 strong army known as the National Patriotic Forces of Liberia, dissidence grew amongst his men, causing a splinter into factions all fighting for control, with struggle for control taking place between Libya and the U.S.

The Human Cost

Amnesty International has documented the deliberate killing of civilians, torture, forced recruitment of children and sexual violence, ‎including rape.

• Rape as a Weapon of War – A survey of 1, 666 adults by the International Medical Corp was conducted after the civil war in 2004, which found that 49% of the women aged 15 – 70 had experienced at least one act of physical or sexual violence by a soldier.

• Children – Approximately 50,000 children were killed, and many others were orphaned. Both children who were forced to become soldiers, and those forced into a life on the streets were traumatized.

• Combatants – Both men and women who had been exposed to sexual violence, suffered from mental health disorders, clinical depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), drug addiction, and suicidal obsessions.

• Civilians – 40% showed symptoms for clinical depression, and 44% showed symptoms of PSTD.

The Impossible

It was women who documented what was happening to other women. This hashelped to draw a picture that was larger than any individual woman has experienced. They documented the circumstances under which a woman was more likely to be at risk by sexual violence. Social workers, turned peace activists, Leymah Gbowee recalled:

    “The war started in 1990 [ second civil war], when I was fresh from high school at the age of 17, going to school to be a medical doctor, and everything was uprooted. In 1996, I thought of getting married, and someone said, “How can you get married during war?” After I got married and was pregnant with my third child, I experienced what they call “exodus,” walking for hours from one distance to the other with bullets flying over your head. Those were the experiences of women, at all levels of the society”.

Enough was enough; they only had each other to turn to, and they were no longer willing to tolerate anymore. Leymah Gbowee bugled the call to pray for peace, and inspired by that call, Muslimah Asatu Bah Kenneth, president of the Liberia Female Law Enforcement Association joined the call.

      “Muslims and Christians – we were united. Amongst the group we selected prayer warriors from both religions. We could have been killed at any time, but I can not recall any of our members at any time being killed!”

“People thought we were crazy, but I am a believer, and once you believe in God, your faith can move mountains”.

Muslimah, Vaiba Flomo who had never worked with a Christians before said:

    “Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know a Christian from a Muslim?”

Through networking at the grassroot level, a non-violent strategy was gaining pace as depicted in the recent documentary film. “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. With over 2,500 women, against the demeaning tide of objectification, and sexualized roles that the civil war had subjected the women to, Christian and Muslim women together donned white T-Shirts with slogans calling for peace, head-scarves, and lapas (a traditional wrap-skirt), with no fancy hair-dos, jewelry or make-up, and went to the churches, the mosques, the marketplaces, and sat outside the American Embassy in the capital Monrovia for three days calling for peace. Discrimination between the women on the basis of religion was not an issue, because the focus was on peace. With no leaders, the women brainstormed, and in so doing guided the whole process collectively. They provided hot meals for those who had become refugees in their own country (internally displaced), and clothing for children.

Gbowee challenged the UN local office, and their inability to achieve an outcome. She pestered them daily, until a partnership developed. Aware that the UN lacked knowledge and understanding of the people, she went to the refugee camps, villages, and the marketplaces. She challenged the women and demanded:

    “You have to be on your toes. Everyday you see these things happening in your community, come to town and let us take it up.”

Change was in motion as more women joined the call for change. With increased focus on the warring factions, the women formulated the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign. They demanded respect from men, and the wives refused intimacy with their husbands until the war ended. Outside the house of President Charles Taylor they sat for days, rain or shine, and refused to move. He noticed! The women drove their message home with slogans on their T-Shirts, protests and petitions, as the rebels were approaching the capital Monrovia where they were, threatening to takeover. With both parties at the negotiation table in neighboring Ghana, the women sat outside singing and chanting amidst tears of frustration as time dragged on.

Finally Leymah Gbowee, called for blockading the Peace Hall where negotiations were taking place, and enforced on the leaders the same experience of thirst and hunger suffered by many Liberians during the civil war. The women formed a human chain, blocking the entrance/exit to the negotiation room. About to be arrested, Leymah untied her hair, and the fear of being cursed prevented the guard from arresting a woman who is akin to being his mother. The brokers for the negotiations of the peace talk were brokered by the International Contact Group on Liberia, and the Economic Community of West African States. With the women keeping vigil outside, the two parties were forced to settle their . The dictator Charles Taylor acquiesced, and an interim government was put in motion! Charles Taylor was charged on 11 counts of war crimes, and crimes against humanity in neighboring Sierre Leone, only to flee to exile in Nigeria under President Obasanjo.

Only the impossible is made possible when done by the willing!

Most of the willing activists were from deprived sections of the population, the ones whose voices are least heard. Gbowee was a woman from the village like many in her network who had to overcome sexism and elitism. On this Gbowee commented:

    “President Taylor had a beautiful way of calling it – “eminent women.” They got invited to all of the state functions and then he said, “You see, the women are here. They are represented.” But these were his aunts and cousins, who were married to former leaders, and they were “eminent women” or women’s leaders because they were born in that kind of setting. And when someone like me from Central Liberia, a little village, got in that movement, there was a lot of resistance to my presence. Our Minister of Gender is also from a little village in Northern Liberia. So a group of us “local” girls had come in and said, “We are here, we are activists, we want to join this movement!” The first thing these elite women thought was that we should follow suit. So for the first two years, it was a battle. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we did not want to do what these women had done. We need them to get to where we want to go. But when we get there we will have a completely different message from what they have been preaching so far. So after five years, we have come to that clear understanding that they are there, we are here”.

There were hurdles still to overcome. Women needed to claim their right to vote. The women’s campaign sent 200 women to 10 communities with babies on their backs, songs in their hearts, and dance steps on their feet. They registered 7477 women voters – they got 51% of the women to vote! The result was Africa’s first woman president, Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf.

Following the example set by Accra, Ghana in 2003, Liberia set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC, which in turn followed the example set by South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Leymah Gbowee served on the TRC, set up peace-building networks in 9 out of 15 of Liberian states, and founded the Women in Peace-building Program/West African Network for Peace-building, developed and facilitated workshops on Trauma Counseling, Conflict Resolution and Peace-building, WIPNET.

Asatu Bah Kenneth is now deputy chief of police in her home country in Liberia. With a female president, the Ministry of Gender and Development has been formed to develop programs to empower women. With a police force that is 13% female Kenneth said:

    “Our president also mentioned that she wanted fight against gender violence to be taught in schools at an early age, and I think that will help”.
    “As a police officer, you should be a peacemaker, and I think that in the back of my mind God has given me the courage to continue with what I have done”.

WIPNET has developed a training manual for peace-building, conflict and post conflict situations. They have networks in action in 10 out of 16 of West African countries, and Leymah Gbowee has worked directly with South Africa, Sierre Leone and Ghana as a consultant. From Ghana, when Gbowee was asked about the effect of colonization upon her country:

“After fourteen years, one lesson [is] that we can’t underestimate our power to do harm and to do good. We shouldn’t. I live in Ghana and one of the biggest things I hear Ghanaians say is that, “We don’t have the spunk that you Liberians [have] to kill each other like that.” Never underestimate your potential to do good or evil. Even in the US, no American would expect to have a government that would decide that the way to do diplomacy is to do it the way they’re doing it now.

      “Another lesson that we’ve learned from this war is that we cannot go back to the era of hypocritical patronage, that’s how I call it. Give us their seats in public, abuse us in private. And all of the policies and practices are not in our favor. The lesson is that we have to fight to make sure that we are on par with these men. We cannot allow them to give us their seats all the time or we become complacent.

“I think those lessons are important and apply to any community whose people need to look and say “this is something that we need to keep our eyes open for.”

Now Leymah Gbowee is back home in Liberia, as a peace consultant for there is still work to be done.


Amnesty International. “Liberia Human Rights”. http://www.amnestyusa.org/all-countries/liberia/page.do?id=1011188%20‎

Liberian Forum. “Liberia: Background”. http://www.liberianforum.com/history.htm

Global Security. “First Civil War: 1989 – 1996” http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/liberia-1989.htm

Hunt Alternatives. “Leymah Gbowee”. http://www.huntalternatives.org/pages/7352_leymah_gbowee.cfm

International Medical Corps. “Aftermath of Liberian War”. Reliefweb. http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/ONIN-7HJQJW?OpenDocument

Izen, M. “A Conversation with Leymah Gbowee, Liberian Peace Activist”. http://www.racewire.org/archives/2007/10/a_conversation_with_leymah_gbo.html

Rothschild, C et al. “Strengthening Resistance: Confronting Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS”. Center for Global Women’s Leadership. http://www.cwgl.rutgers.edu/globalcenter/publications/strengthening.pdf%20%20%20‎

Rousseau, M-H. “Liberia: The Women Who Ended War” http://allafrica.com/stories/200812110832.html%20%20‎

The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “A Conversation with Women Peacebuilders”. The Boston Consortium of Gender, Security, and Human Rights. http://www.genderandsecurity.org/Leymah%20Gbowee%20and%20Shobha%20Gautam%203-8-06.pdf

Turan, Kenneth. “Women of Liberia Take Their Country Back ” Los Angeles Times. http://www.denverpost.com/movies/ci_11454757

Silver, M. “How the Women of Liberia Beat the Devil” http://ngm.typepad.com/pop_omnivore/2008/11/how-the-‎women-o.html%20‎

Swiss, S. et al. Violence Against Women During the Liberia Conflict” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9486762

This was originally written in 2009

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