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Liberian Activist Brings Plight of Women and Children to the Negotiating Table


She was a still teenager during the civil war years in her country, Liberia. Later she faced a challenge in her job in peace and reconciliation among former child soldiers and traumatized women. There, she saw for herself what it was all about, and today she is working to make a difference.

Leymah Gbowee says women have what it takes to make peace, even though they are often left out of the process. But once they get involved, she said, they make a big difference, bringing to the discussion table something their male counterparts don’t. “We bring what people don’t see everyday around the table with men – the faces of our children and the ability to communicate feelings….”

How she got involved

Gbowee said working in peace building and reconciliation programs gave her answers to many questions about conflict. “Over the years, I realized that we could change society if people who actually feel the brunt are involved.”

Gbowee said every peacemaker has a story, and it could be difficult to function without personal experience. “They will be doing it from their head and from theory; it will be a job. But for those who have lived conflict, she adds, “it’s about ensuring that what they’ve gone through, the generations after don’t. It’s [a] social security benefit for their children.” Gbowee attributes the failure of some peace building efforts on a failure of some policymakers to experience the suffering first-hand. “Maybe that’s why some policymakers make the kind of mistakes they do, because they’ve never really been there.”

Women and mediation, pre-colonial era

By 1951, when women first voted in Liberia, they were doing so after 100 years (of independence), “just to show you how marginalized and far back women were pushed,” Gbowee said. Except for rare traditional practices, they mediated mostly petty conflicts among women, “not really inter-communal conflicts that men and elders will gather to talk about.”

Leymah Gbowee, who is also the executive director of the Women’s Peace-Building Network of Liberia, shared her opinion about her country’s ongoing truth and reconciliation endeavors: “The process could do better. People come and reopen their wounds and all they get is ‘Thank you.’ We would like a kind of trauma healing.”