Interview: Leymah Gbowee, The Nobel Laureate Who Helped End Liberia’s Civil War

Apr 24, 2017

Ebong Udoma, WSHU’s senior political reporter, recently met Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist, when she was in Connecticut for the PeaceJam event at Western Connecticut State University. Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for leading the women’s movement that helped end Liberia’s second civil war.

Watch the interview or read the transcript below.

Leymah, you won the Nobel Prize for your work bringing Christians and Muslims together in your home country of Liberia during the second civil war. How difficult was that?

When the war was on, everyone refused to acknowledge that beyond the politics and ethnic divide, religion played a vital role in where we found ourselves as a people. However, as we progressed we recognized that the warring factions that were emerging, were emerging either on the basis of ethnic group or on the basis of religious diversity.

So when we decide to do our actions, we wanted it to be something that was all inclusive – women from different ethnic groups, women from different political groups and regions, women from different economic and social status, also women from the different religious divide.

So what is the divide, what’s the divide between Christians and Muslims in Liberia?

I think its 51-49 or 52-48.

So pretty evenly divided?

It’s pretty evenly divided. However, when we decided to do the action, people would easily come together across ethnic groups and we’d talk about our differences. When it came to religious divide, they’d say we have no problems. And you know one of the ways of solving a problem is a recognition that there is a problem. When people are in denial it is difficult. So working with the Christian and the Muslim women, just trying to mobilize them around faith, was the most difficult part of it.

Coming together was the hardest part.

But once we were able it to get them together, it was easy now for us to begin to identify issues that they had. Once we came together, we did not focus on the religious divide. Rather we were looking at what brought us together more. The common things we had, the common theme is that we were all women.

Okay. This leads me to ask you a question about what we’ve seen with the upheaval in the United States following the so-called Muslim ban. How does your experience in Liberia relate to what’s going on in the United States today?

The first thing is that, if I will go back to the words of his holiness the Dalai Lama and even Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the different religious groups primarily are just in name, and the way we pray and worship. But if you look at the principles and values, especially as it relates to peace and human lives and all of the things that are dear to all of us, they’re the same – love your neighbor as yourself, take care of the weak, the orphans, the widows and all of these things. And I think at this point in time this is the message that we need to put out there. So let it not be about Hindu, Buddhists, Christian, Muslim. Let it be about the common humanity we share. 

Let’s talk about something that was quite controversial when you were involved in your movement to try and bring peace in Liberia. What gained a lot of national attention was the sex strike. You have been known to have said that it had little or no practical effect on the men but it was extremely valuable in getting media attention?

When we said we were doing a sex strike, in all honestly it wasn’t that we were targeting the media first. It was for us to get the attention of the men in Liberia, to say even if you are not a fighter, you have a dear buddy that is a fighter that you need to talk to because he needs to see reason to end the war.

But once we put it out there, the request for press and everything that we were not getting at first brought us to the place where we said wow this is a really good tool for getting our stories out there. So I think the world that we are living in, as unfair as it may be, is that media will only capture things that are ether violent or sexually motivated. Nothing about peace really sells to the media, like war, killings, sex, rape and abuse.

Now your goal has been to empower women in Liberia and in Africa, as a matter of fact you’ve just celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Gbowee Foundation. How successful have you been?

The beauty is in the number of young women who have seen a future beyond what they had.

In five years, we’ve raised in grants over $1.2 million. We’ve been able to send over 100 students to school in seven countries around the world. We today have impacted the lives of 2,500 students in Liberia – indirectly maybe tens of thousands. But the beauty for me is not in the dollars, in the sense that we’ve been able to spend, the beauty is in the number of young women who have seen a future beyond what they had.

You’ve just come from Bogota, Colombia, where they’ve reached a peace agreement after decades of war, and you told the people of Colombia that they should hold the president’s feet to the fire. What did you mean by that?

President Santos is a Nobel laureate now. He is the president of Colombia, there’s a peace process. He’s in the forefront. For them to hold his feet to the fire is to ensure that there is not a slump in this process, that it continues on time and that every resource needed would be provided including his time and energy.

Let’s go back to your native Liberia again. On January 16, 2018, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would have finished her second term. She was the first woman to have been elected president in Africa. What do you think this means for women’s empowerment in Africa?

Well the first thing I would say President Sirleaf’s election did for Liberia was to raise a whole generation of young people that will look themselves in the mirror, especially young women, and say if she could, I too can. Not just in becoming president but in aspiring to be whatever I want to be.

The other side of it is that you know women in politics would be judged harsher than a man in politics. And President Sirleaf did what she could do for Liberia. And you know that we’ve had our fallout. I wish that she had been a one-term president. A one-term president would have set Liberia on a course for rehabilitation, reconciliation, and everything and step out of the picture. I said recently that she would have been the female version of Nelson Mandela.

Staying in office for a second term, putting her children in positions that made people to look at her with another eye, not only took away some of the clout that she had, but it also brought all of us – the women in Liberia who may intend to go into leadership in the future – to a place where the men are saying why should we give it to you? So this one woman, I saw being used as the yardstick to measure women’s leadership in the future in Liberia.

You are here in Connecticut for the PeaceJam hosted by Western Connecticut State University. Why is it important for you to be here?

You know I won the prize at 39. I was asked: ‘So what legacy do you want to leave?’ I just won the prize, that’s a legacy. And my team was like, ‘No, if you had won at 79, then you had a whole life behind you so you can shut it down.’ But at 39? I thought about it for a long time and I recognized that in my past life as an activist in the women’s movement there were two things that were missing – young people and education; young people and leadership. So my response was that I want to do something around youth, leadership and education. And so I started this journey.

If you want to take this journey, you have to dare to go through all of these different things.

Being a part of PeaceJam helps me fulfill some of that goal. The goal of inspiring young people to be the best that they can be. And so I come to PeaceJam with my life experience, no theory, raw, practical, that this is who I am, what you see is what you get. And this is where I’ve been.

So for me, young people are the next generation. I was at a talk in New York two days ago, where people were asking, ‘How do you give young people their voice?’ And I said in the school setting today, especially with young women, at home, at school, we teach our daughters at very early stages that you are important. It’s not like in the ‘30s where women were to be seen and not heard. Today we say be heard, be seen and be loud. But from baby to 17 that message is reinforced. And then they step into the real world during college and then they meet and encounter a world that patriarchy is still in full control. Young girls will not get dates because some boys are afraid of an intellectual mind. Women if you are too loud, you will get judged. All of these things.

And the question I was asking that group was how do we mentor our young people for after 18 for the real world? And I think my role today at PeaceJam and all of the other places that I find myself, is to begin a conversation with both boys and girls that this is the real world. Not the bubble you were in when you were in high school and in your parent’s home. The real world is the world that will challenge the values that you were socialized with. How do you stand firm for what you believe in? And I think if we are able to help young people to understand that we will be able to change the world. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that the importance of being here is also keeping me young, is also keeping me focused. I’m privileged to be able to go to different countries and at the UN at the EU to sit with global leaders. Which message do I want to give them? Is it just the message that I hear on the news, or the message from these young people? So I think the importance of it is that it keeps me humble. It keeps me legitimate. Because by engaging with young people, I’m able to say these are the constituents that I work with, these are the voices that I represent when I stand at the UN to speak around issues of youth empowerment. So it is very important for me. If I fail to come to these events and to go back to my community, I've lost the call of my life.

Thank you, Leymah Gbowee.

Thank you.             

This project is a collaboration between WSHU Public Radio and Sacred Heart University's School of Communication and Media Arts.

Read more about Gbowee's work at PeaceJam.