By Lucie Gil, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
From 1989 to 2003, Liberia faced two extremely violent civil wars. Although we have to be careful to avoid gender essentialization, one has to admit that women were often the first victims of these conflicts. Besides rape and sexual violence, a lot of them were displaced or forced to flee the country. They also lost their husbands, brothers and sons and were struck by water and food scarcity due to the blockade of Monrovia and other parts of the country.
In light of the failure of traditional diplomacy, a group of women decided to take action and to implement its own strategy towards peace. Under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee – 2009 Nobel Peace prize winner together with Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace was launched during the second civil war. Convinced that women had the power to change the situation, Leymah Gbowee first joined the Women in Peacebuilding Network that had been formed in West Africa in 2001 in order to empower women and decrease the gender gap in peace processes. She then initiated the rapprochement of women in Christian Churches with the creation of the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative. Another woman, Asatu Bah Kenneth, a 25 year-old police officer, came to assist the launch of this new association and soon began the same kind of work in the Muslim community with the Liberian Muslim Women’s organization.
When the two groups eventually came together to form a coalition, that was the starting point of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Vaiba Flomo, President of the Chistian Women’s Peace Initiative, asked reluctant ones: “can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?” Uniting in Monrovia and beyond, over 3000 women of different religions, ethnic identities, ages and social backgrounds placed increasing pressure on Charles Taylor’s government as well as the rebel factions to come to a peace agreement. Through grassroots mass action, they also sought to attract international support and attention in order to be included in the negotiations. They regularly gathered in front of Charles Taylor’s house or along the road when the presidential delegation drove inside the capital, to peacefully demonstrate. Wearing white t-shirts, they walked, danced, sat for hours and kept praying and singing “we want peace, no more war”.
The movement was long ignored by the local and national warlords, and by the international media and community whose focus was then on the situation of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, however, the group of Liberian women managed to engineer a remarkable development shot by forcing a meeting with Charles Taylor. They obtained his promise that he would assist peace talks held in Accra with several rebel factions. A delegation of women then flew to the Ghanaian capital and kept applying pressure by blocking the Presidential Palace, preventing anyone to go out before reaching an agreement. The different parties, as the international community, could no longer keep their eyes closed, and eventually accepted the role of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace as a legitimate political force in the country and invited them to the peace table.
After the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in Accra on the 18th August 2003, the women’s movement insisted on taking part in the monitoring of the peace process. The mobilization remained important and the organization actively participated in the election of the first African female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The international community also decided to adopt a gender perspective and took into account the importance of women in the reconstruction process by deploying an all-female United Nations peacekeeping force in the country. Today, ten years after the end of the second civil war, women empowerment and the achievement of gender equality remains a core issue in the Liberian government policies. Liberian women definitely succeeded where military forces and traditional diplomacy, two sectors traditionally characterized by male domination, failed. This extraordinary story is told in the documentary movie Pray the devil back to hell, directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney (two women again!). Released in 2008, it won several awards, including the best documentary feature at the Tribeca Film Festival where it was screened for the first time.
- African Women and Peace Support Group, Liberian Women Peacemakers. Fighting for the right to be seen, heard and counted, Africa World Press, 2004
Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy
Images source: http://praythedevilbacktohell.com/