Leymah Gbowee became a Nobel laureate in 2011 for the role she played in leading a nonviolent, grassroots mass action that brought Liberia’s devastating civil wars to an end. In 2003, at just 31 years of age, she envisioned a Liberia freed from the devastation of war through peaceful action and nonviolent resistance. And in 2012, she built upon that vision to establish the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa.
During the Second Liberian Civil War, Gbowee was one of the co-founders and jointly led the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which tapped into the abilities of Liberian women — who were watching their children taken as child soldiers and their men fighting as combatants in the Second Civil War — to mobilize for peace. In order to mobilize the women as a collective force, she and her co-founders realized they had to overcome religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences in the peace movement itself. The co-founders brought together Muslim and Christian women through an innovative strategy of inclusion and dialogue to form a joint movement that overcame the traditional hostility between the two religious groups. The coalition united over 3,000 women determined to pressure Taylor and the rebel factions to come to a peace agreement.
Overcoming the challenges of their societal differences was complicated by the initial lack of a coordinated strategy to confront the warring factions, and the absence of any funding or international backing. So they improvised. Their grassroots mass actions including gathering in front of Taylor’s house or along the road when the presidential delegation drove inside the capital, dressed deliberately in trademark white t-shirts, identifying them as bringers of peace through nonviolent resistance. For hours the women walked, danced, sat, prayed, and sang “we want peace, no more war.” They famously used a sex strike to get the male combatants’ attention — and ended up gaining media attention in the process. Ultimately their movement raised international awareness and brought the outside support they needed to bring about a peace agreement. They demanded and received a meeting with Taylor, who acceded to their demands to attend peace talks in Ghana, and they kept pressure up through protest until the peace agreement was signed. Taylor subsequently stepped down and Liberia held its first democratic elections in 2005. When the results were announced, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had become Africa’s first elected female head of state. Sirleaf would later receive a Nobel Peace Prize alongside Gbowee.
Following her Nobel Peace Prize, Gbowee dove further into her vision of a peaceful Liberia and a prosperous Africa, building a new African model for women’s and girl’s leadership. Armed with the knowledge she had gained in the Liberian women’s peace movement, and with her prior knowledge of social work and conflict resolution, in 2012 she founded the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa (GPFA), in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia. GPFA’s culture and operational model is based on a comprehensive youth and women’s engagement strategy, reflecting Gbowee’s conviction that peaceful, sustained development requires the meaningful participation and advancement of women and youth and a focus on the entire system that supports them. She has stated her vision for ensuring peace is to invest in girls’ education, which she sees as closely linked to economic empowerment, which in turn is linked to peace and security for women.
With a stated mission of promoting “holistic transformation in Africa by facilitating equal access to opportunities in all spheres of influence, whilst envisioning a peaceful, reconciled and empowered Africa that is responsible for investing in sustained individual and collective growth and development,” the foundation provides educational and leadership development opportunities for women, girls and youth. Its model rests upon a comprehensive scholarship program, youth empowerment activities, and women’s gatherings, coupled with capacity building, budgeting, fundraising, and relationship building. Young girls are sought out and selected for educational support by consulting with the women of their village, who determine who demonstrates the most potential to stay the course and succeed. The process of selection is not passive, nor is it done without consultation with the community. The students are trained also as community leaders and are required to return to their homes and communities. This creates a circular loop of giving back and seeding leadership.
In its five years of operations, Gbowee has stated that the program has directly impacted 2,500 young women and indirectly impacted tens of thousands. The GPFA has articulated a theory of change to sustain peace that relies on reconciliation and empowerment of youth and local communities, through a series of programs and opportunities for education for peace and development, a transformative leadership initiative, driving innovation to support community empowerment, workforce preparation, and youth and community voice.
As women in Liberia begin to confront Sirleaf Johnson’s mixed record on women’s rights as she leaves her presidency, and in the face of rising violence against women in war globally, Gbowee has founded the Women, Peace, and Security Program at the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City. The Program is built to counter the fact that women are underrepresented in formal peace processes and political and governance processes, and to work within a human rights frame to advocate for the inclusion of women’s contributions to promoting peace, justice, and community development.
Learn more: www.gboweepeaceafrica.org