Liberian social worker Leymah Gbowee played a major role in ending the long and brutal civil war (1989-2003) that nearly destroyed her homeland. As one of the founders of an organization called the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), she brought women of all classes and faiths together in nonviolent protests that forced the warring parties back to the negotiating table. Her efforts were the focus of a prizewinning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, released in 2008.
Gbowee was born in 1971 or 1972 in central Liberia, a small nation of three million on the West African coast. While a child, she moved with her parents to the capital of Monrovia, and it was there that she received her basic education. Her plans for the future were interrupted and ultimately transformed by the outbreak of hostilities in 1989. "War erupted when I was 17, fresh out of high school," she recalled to Sarah Seltzer of the Web site Women's eNews. "I needed to do something to make a difference."
In its initial stages, the war pitted a number of rebel groups against President Samuel K. Doe. After one rebel, Charles Taylor, gained the upper hand, winning the presidency in 1997, the other groups turned against him. Every faction quickly gained a reputation for brutality, and violence against unarmed civilians was intense and systematic. As many as 250,000 people--nearly 10 percent of the country's population--were killed, and well over a million were forced from their homes. These "internally displaced persons" became the focus of Gbowee's first antiwar efforts. As a caseworker, first with the Ministry of Health, from 1995 to 1996, and then with the Lutheran Church in Liberia's Trauma Programme, from 1998 to 2003, she helped refugees cope with the intense feelings of fear and alienation brought on by the violence. The most extreme reactions, she found, were often in children, particularly those who had been forced to participate in military operations. There were tens of thousands of these child soldiers in Liberia, and their pain resonated with Gbowee, who by that time had young children herself. Faced daily with the effects of the violence, she resolved to attack its causes. An end to the war, she realized, was the only way to address the overwhelming trauma she saw around her.
Gbowee's first steps in this new effort were modest. At the Lutheran church she attended with her family, she organized a group of women to pray for peace. As news of the prayer sessions spread, women from other faiths, including indigenous traditions and Islam, began to attend. By 2001 the group had a name, the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). Gbowee served as its coordinator, marshaling extremely limited resources and organizing protests throughout the capital. The largest of these took place regularly at a major open-air market. According to Bob Herbert in an op-ed piece that appeared in the January 31, 2009, New York Times, "Thousands of women ... showed up day after day, praying, waving signs, singing, dancing, chanting and agitating for peace."
Although WIPNET's protests pleased few of the warring factions, they proved particularly vexing to Taylor, who was facing growing criticism in the international community for his refusal to consider a negotiated settlement. When the combination of domestic and international pressures finally forced Taylor to the negotiating table in 2002, the rebels, whose military strength was waning, had little choice but to follow. Held in the neighboring nation of Ghana, the discussions nearly broke down several times. When it appeared the impasse might be permanent, however, Gbowee arrived with several hundred WIPNET members. Linking arms outside the negotiation room, they declared their intention to remain until a deal was reached. When threatened with arrest, Gbowee threatened, in turn, to disrobe, an act with enormous symbolic meaning in western Africa, where it has been used for centuries to express anger and indignation. Her point was clear: The negotiators should be ashamed of themselves. The gambit worked. Taylor and the rebels backed down and returned to negotiations, emerging a few weeks later with a peace agreement. Taylor went into exile in Nigeria, and preparations began for free elections and a return to stability.
Gbowee assisted in those preparations in several significant ways. As the elections approached, she and other WIPNET activists worked to ensure accountability among poll workers and to support the presidential candidacy of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a widely respected economist. At the same time, from 2004 to 2005, Gbowee served as a commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a public agency formed to investigate, document, prosecute, and memorialize thousands of war crimes throughout the country. With Sirleaf's triumphant victory in 2005, Gbowee left Liberia to do graduate work in the United States at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, which granted her a master's degree that year in the field of conflict transformation.
Upon her return to Africa in 2006, Gbowee joined two other activists, Thelma Ariemebi Ekiyor and Ecoma Bassey Alaga, to found a new organization, Women Peace and Security Network Africa (often known as WIPSEN-Africa, WIPSEN-A, or simply WIPSEN). With headquarters in Accra, Ghana, WIPSEN-Africa works to share the lessons learned in Liberia throughout the continent. According to a mission statement posted on its Web site, WIPSEN-Africa's "core mandate" is aimed "to promote women's strategic participation and leadership in peace and security governance in Africa." Gbowee initially served as a regional consultant for the organization; in 2007 she was named executive director.
In 2006 Gbowee met two filmmakers, producer Abigail Disney and director Gini Reticker, who enlisted her help in making a documentary about WIPNET. Using a mixture of archival footage, home movies, and interviews, they created what Kevin Conley of O, the Oprah Magazine called "an upbeat story about an unlikely mix of characters who believed in themselves." Gbowee herself, Conley added, was the film's "charismatic star." Titled Pray the Devil Back to Hell, it won the award for best documentary feature at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. According to the New York Times's Herbert, the film "reminds us of the incredible power available to the most ordinary of people if they are willing to act with courage and unwavering commitment."
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Gbowee, Sirleaf, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work," according to the official release. The women traveled to Oslo, Norway, in December of 2011 to receive the prize. The three were to split the $1.5 million in prize money. BBC News reported on the ceremony, quoting Gbowee's speech: "I believe that the prize this year not only recognizes our struggle in Liberia and Yemen. It is in recognition and honour of the struggles of grass roots women in Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Tunisia, in Palestine and Israel, and in every troubled corner of the world."
Born Leymah Roberta Gbowee in 1971 or 1972 in Liberia; children: five. Religion: Lutheran. Education: Eastern Mennonite University, MA, conflict transformation, 2005. Addresses: Office--c/o WIPSEN-Africa, P.M.B. 36 Osu, Accra, Ghana. Web--http://www.wipsen-africa.org/.
Ministry of Health, Liberia, caseworker, 1995-96; Lutheran Church in Liberia Trauma Programme, caseworker, 1998-2003; Women in Peacebuilding Network, cofounder and Liberian Programme coordinator, 2001-05; Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Liberia, commissioner designate, 2004-05; Women Peace and Security Network Africa, cofounder, 2006, regional consultant, 2006-07, executive director, 2007--.
Blue Ribbon Peace Award, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 2007; named one of "21 Leaders for the 21st Century," Women's eNews, 2007; John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, 2009.
- New York Times, January 31, 2009, p. A25.
- O, the Oprah Magazine, December 2008.
- "About WIPSEN-Africa," WIPSEN-Africa, http://www.wipsen-africa.org/wipsen/about/ (accessed April 27, 2009).
- "Founders/Trustees," WIPSEN-Africa, http://www.wipsen-africa.org/wipsen/who/founders/ (accessed April 25, 2009).
- Izen, Megan, "A Conversation with Leymah Gbowee, Liberian Peace Activist," ColorLines, RaceWire blog, October 18, 2007, http://www.racewire.org/archives/2007/10/a_conversation_with_leymah_gbo.html (accessed April 23, 2009).
- "Leymah Gbowee," Hunt Alternatives Fund, http://www.huntalternatives.org/pages/7352_leymah_gbowee.cfm (accessed April 23, 2009).
- "Nobel Peace Prize Awarded in Oslo," BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16124697 (December 29, 2011).
- Seltzer, Sarah, "Seven Who Topple Tyrannies," Women's eNews, December 24, 2007, http://www.womensenews.org/Article.cfm/dyn/aid/3420 (accessed April 23, 2009).
- "The Nobel Peace Prize 2011," Nobel Prize, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2011/gbowee.html (December 29, 2011).
- Pray the Devil Back to Hell (documentary film), 2008.