Leymah Roberta Gbowee is best known for leading a nonviolent movement that brought together Christian and Muslim women to play a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s devastating, fourteen-year civil war in 2003. This historic achievement paved the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It also marked the vanguard of a new wave of women emerging worldwide as essential and uniquely effective participants in brokering lasting peace and security.
Leymah was seventeen years old when the Liberian civil war started and turned her, in her own words, “from a child into an adult in a matter of hours.” While the conflict raged, she became a young mother and eventually trained as a social worker and trauma counselor, working with ex-child soldiers. She came to believe in women’s responsibility to the next generation to work proactively to restore peace, and she became a founding member and Liberia Coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP). Inspired by a dream and as a person of faith, she organized her fellow Christian women to mobilize for peace. She then collaborated with a Muslim partner to build an unprecedented coalition with Muslim women, giving rise to the interfaith movement known as the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace (which operated under the auspices of WIPNET).
Leymah was appointed its spokesperson and led the women in weeks-long public protests that grew to include thousands of committed participants. Leymah led the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace participants in public protests that forced Liberia’s ruthless then-President Charles Taylor to meet with them and agree to take part in formal peace talks in Accra, Ghana. She led a delegation of women to Accra, where they applied strategic pressure to ensure progress was made. At a crucial moment when the talks seemed stalled, Leymah and nearly 200 women formed a human barricade to prevent Taylor’s representatives and the rebel warlords from leaving the meeting hall for food or any other reason until, the women demanded, the men reached a peace agreement. When security forces attempted to arrest Leymah, she displayed tactical brilliance in threatening to disrobe – an act that according to traditional beliefs would have brought a curse of terrible misfortune upon the men. Leymah’s threat worked, and it proved to be a decisive turning point for the peace process. Within weeks, Taylor resigned the presidency and went into exile, and a peace treaty mandating a transitional government was signed.
Leymah Roberta Gbowee Full Biography and Profile
Leymah Roberta Leymah was born in central Liberia February 1, 1972. She was living with her parents and sisters in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, when the First Liberian Civil War erupted. She recalls clearly the day the first Liberian civil war came to her doorstep. “All of a sudden one July morning I wake up at 17, going to the university to fulfill my dream of becoming a medical doctor, and fighting erupted.”
Witnessing the effects of war on Liberians, she decided to train as a trauma counsellor to treat former child soldiers. A second civil war broke out in 1999 and brought systematic rape and brutality to an already war-weary Liberia. Responding to the conflict, Leymah mobilized an interreligious coalition of Christian and Muslim women and organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement. Through Leymah’s leadership, thousands of women staged pray-ins and nonviolent protests demanding reconciliation and the resuscitation of high-level peace talks. The pressure pushed President Charles Taylor into exile, and smoothed the path for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, fellow 2011 Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Documenting these efforts in the Tribeca Film Festival 2008 Best Documentary winner Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Leymah demonstrated the power of social cohesion and relationship-building in the face of political unrest and social turmoil.
“She is a warrior for peace, a daring person who never gives up,” said Bertha Amanor, Ms Gbowee’s personal assistant at WPSN.
Throughout the years of war, activism, and the struggle to raise her children while traveling and studying, Gbowee had developed a severe problem with alcohol. The intervention of her family and friends — and a life-threatening stomach ulcer — persuaded her to give up alcohol for good. Her personal life remained complicated. In 2009, she gave birth to her sixth child, a daughter she named Jaydyn Thelma Abigail or “Nehcopee.” None of her relationships with men up to that point had led to marriage. But with the completion of her studies, she was reunited with her children, and her life grew more stable. Despite her high profile as an international peace activist and advocate for women’s rights, Leymah Gbowee has made efforts to preserve her privacy; in her autobiography, for example, she used pseudonyms when discussing the men in her life. Today she is married and is happily raising a blended family of eight children. Her son Joshua has followed in her footsteps, studying at Eastern Mennonite University.
In 2007, Leymah earned a Master’s degree in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in the United States. Meanwhile, she continued to build women’s agency in fighting for sustainable peace. She is a founding member and former coordinator for Women in Peacebuilding/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). She also co-founded the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa) to promote cross-national peace-building efforts and transform women’s participation as victims in the crucible of war to mobilized armies for peace.
Ever-focused on sustaining peace, Leymah continued working on behalf of grassroots efforts in her leadership positions. She served as a member of both the African Feminist Forum and the African Women’s Leadership Network on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and as a commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Through these positions, Leymah addressed the particular vulnerability of women and children in war-torn societies.
In her current position as President of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Leymah pushes for greater inclusion of women as leaders and agents of change in Africa.
Leymah Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in leading a women’s peace movement that brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. Gbowee shared the prize with fellow Liberian Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen-native Tawakkol Karman. Gbowee and Sirleaf became the second and third African women to win the prize, preceded by the late Wangari Maathai of Kenya.
Leymah is the founder and president of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa based in Liberia. Her foundation provides educational and leadership opportunities to girls, women and youth in West Africa.
Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Leymah travels internationally to speak about the pernicious and devastating effects of war and gender-based violence. She has been featured on a number of international television programmes including CNN, BBC and France24, and speaks internationally advocating for women’s high level inclusion in conflict-resolution. She has received several honorary degrees from universities, and is a Global Ambassador for Oxfam.
She serves on the Board of Directors of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Gbowee Peace Foundation and the PeaceJam Foundation, and she is a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning. She has received honorary degrees from Rhodes University in South Africa, the University of Alberta in Canada, Polytechnic University in Mozambique, and University of Dundee in Scotland. After receiving the Barnard College Medal of Distinction in 2013, she was named a Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice. Leymah is the proud mother of six children.
When asked how she first found the courage to become a peace activist, Leymah explained: “When you’ve lived true fear for so long, you have nothing to be afraid of. I tell people I was 17 when the war started in Liberia. I was 31 when we started protesting. I have taken enough dosage of fear that I have gotten immune to fear.”
“It is time to stand up, sisters, and do some of the most unthinkable things. We have the power to turn our upsidedown world right.”
She holds a M.A. in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, VA). She also received a Doctor of Laws (LLD) honoris causa from Rhodes University in South Africa and the University of Alberta in Canada, and a Doctor Honoris Causa in Specialty Management and Conflict Resolution from the Polytechnic University in Mozambique. In 2013, she was named a Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice, a Visiting Transnational Fellow at the Center for Research on Women and Fellow in Residence at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. Leymah was honored as a flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. She is the proud mother of six children.
“I think there is a moment in everyone’s life — we all have it — when you’re pushed so far back against the wall, you have two options: allow that wall to swallow you or fight back.” – Leymah Gbowee.
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