Leymah Gbowee: Mothers are the key to Peace

by Anna Blanch on November 29, 2011

Today, November 29th is International Human Rights Defenders Day. I’m happy to welcome Jordan Williams and this post about an extraordinary campaigner for peace and a defender of human rights. It’s also a little about the power of mothers.


For all the wonderful ideas and innovations that have shaped and changed global culture over the centuries, there are still certain activities of humankind remain and persist, often despite our most skilled and persistent efforts.  War is one such regular and ancient preoccupation.  Yet that does not mean that the nature of war has remained static.  In contrast, today’s wars have changed dramatically as they are more likely to be waged not between states but within them.  In the mid-twentieth century, about half of all conflicts were intrastate wars.  By 1990, that number climbed to nearly 90%.[i]  These wars are often characterized not by uniformed soldiers with flags, but by ordinary civilians armed with improvised and illegal weapons.  These untrained warriors battle right in the heart of towns, communities, homes, and families—with women often caught in the crossfire.

Yet, just as the nature of war is changing before our eyes, the stories of women in war are evolving as well.  Women have refused to remain silent and let their agency during wartime be stripped from their active hands.  In the aftermath of the Bosnian war, women worked tirelessly to make rape a recognized war crime as well as to pass a UN resolution that prompted the world to bring women into peace talks and negotiations.[ii]  Women and women’s advocates are working to change the way the story of women in war is told.  Women are not passive victims, but meaningful agents of positive, transformative change.  Their message is that war is not solely the realm of men, and neither is the peace process.  Instead, all voices—both female and male—must be heard if positive, lasting peace is to be achieved after these horrendous intrastate conflicts.

Although women throughout the world are raising their voices in this campaign—from Colombia to Afghanistan to Liberia—one woman in particular provides a shining example of the hope and change women are bringing to the negotiation tables.  Leymah Gbowee, a joint winner of this year’s Nobel peace prize, is a prominent leader in the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.  Though her actions began as a simple nonviolent protest, in which she and thousands of other women sat day after day on a hot and dusty football field to pray and fast for peace, the movement was not overlooked by the then-dictator Charles Taylor who drove past the field everyday.  Relentless, the women not only endured the scorching sun and pouring rain, but they also risked their lives with this protest to end the war that had plagued their homes, families and country for over 14 years.  After working as trauma counselor as well as experiencing first-hand the horrors of war, Gbowee came to the conclusion that:

“If any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers.”[iii]

In line with her creative and committed spirit, Gbowee even suggested that the women might go on a sex strike in order to try to bring the warring men to their senses![iv]  She and the women’s group continued to protest until Taylor promised them a meeting.  The women, under Gbowee’s brave leadership, helped to eventually push Taylor out of power and prompted the signing of the Accra Peace Accord in which the three warring factions agreed to deliver an unconditional ceasefire and an intervention force as well as for the government and rebels to meet and talk.[v]  As the strong, persistent and innovative Gbowee illustrates, it is possible for women to affect and change the conversation of modern intrastate warfare—for the better and for all.

Jordan Williams is currently a candidate for a Master’s of Letters in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of St Andrews.  A native Texan and graduate of Baylor University, Jordan enjoys philosophy, literature, gardening, baking, hiking and sharing a warm cup of coffee with friends. 

[i][ii] Abigail E. Disney, “War Belongs to Women, Too,” Time Magazine, 8 November 2011, accessed 19 November 2011.
[iii][v] Tamasin Ford, “Leymah Gbowee–profileThe Guardian, 7 October 2011, accessed 19 November 2011.
[iv] BBC, “Profile: Leymah Gbowee – Liberia’s ‘peace warrior,’” BBC News: Africa, 7 October 2011, accessed 19 November 2011.

This post is part of the 16 Days of Action toward eliminating violence against women. The 16 Days of Action is a global campaign founded by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, I’m hosting posts across the 16 days, from 25 November to 10 December. You can help by sharing these posts on social media, by taking care of the women around you, & by standing against violence against women.
Connect with Anna on Academia.edu, Linked In, facebook page, & Twitter.

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