Women of Liberia’s mass action for peace
- Published: 12 June 2010
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Grassroots campaigning by Liberian women in the midst of the brutal civil war resulted in the election of the country’s first female president, write John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach.
They had watched their brothers, husbands, sons and daughters killed and raped. Innocent lives stolen for a senseless war.
“We could not sit down anymore to see this hopeless situation degenerate into a greater state of hopelessness,” they said. And so they began organising.
They met in the fish markets and refugee camps. They met in homes and on street corners. They met as Christian and Muslim women, in churches and in mosques: “Can a bullet
pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?” Leymah Gbowee asked when religious differences threatened the possibility of peace (Pray the Devil Back to Hell 2008).
And slowly, the barriers of religion, class, age and ethnicity shattered in the common desire to end the war. The women were refugees, educators, politicians, police officers and market women. They were mothers, daughters, aunties, grandmothers and nieces. They were the creators of life. Women talking, mothers rising, they could not sit anymore.
The first meeting of four women soon grew to meetings of more than 500. And the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign was born.
As their numbers grew, so too did their actions. They organised mass protests: they danced, they sang, they wept. They began a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their husbands. Using the power they had to demand an end to the war.
But mostly they sat.
Lining the streets in bright white t-shirts they sat through rain, blazing sun, wind – sometimes with bullets and air raids whirling around them. They sat. With only one simple message: ‘We Want Peace, No More War.’
William Saa, a renowned Liberian peacebuilder, later reflected, “The women’s reserved energy was there for a long time. It was like a time bomb just waiting to explode.”
And explode they did. They insisted on meeting with the then president, Charles Taylor. Finally, after weeks of protest he agreed to see them. The women lined the halls of parliament in their simple white t-shirts as Leymah Gbowee presented their statement to the president:
‘The women of Liberia, including the Internally Displaced People, are tired of war. We are tired of the killing of our people and we, the women of Liberia, want peace now’ (Pray the Devil back to Hell 2008).
Taylor refused to meet with the rebel factions. He ignored the women’s plea for peace.
But this did not stop the women. They went to the United States Embassy and to the international press.
The pressure mounted and the women did not stop until eventually, the day came when Charles Taylor could no longer ignore the power of the women who gathered. He agreed to meet for peace talks with the rebel faction, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).
So the women travelled, unarmed, as mothers, into the bush. They met with the LURD warlords, delivering their message: ‘The women of Liberia want peace now.’ LURD agreed to meet for peace talks and arrangements were made for the top rebel leaders of LURD to meet with Charles Taylor and his administration for peace talks in Accra, Ghana.
Despite their leadership the women were excluded from the talks. They were not invited to the negotiation table. Their voices did not count. ‘What could market mothers know of negotiation?’ the men asked.
But they had found a new power in their collectivity. ‘We have all suffered,’ Leymah said. ‘If you are illiterate: you are a target of rape; if you are a market woman: you are a target of rape; if you are active in civil society and politics: you are a target of rape. We are all victims. And we all have a voice.’ Once again, they began talking and gathering.
They spread their message throughout the marketplaces. One mother to another. Their message soon reached mothers in Ghana.
The Ghanaian women began gathering – in marketplaces, on street corners, in churches and mosques – and they in turn alerted their Sierra Leonean, Ivorian and Nigerian sisters. Together, they raised money and travelled to Accra. A powerful coalition of more than 200 women gathered outside the building where the political leaders who had denied them voice met.
Fatura, a strong woman from the north of Ghana recalled the day, a sparkle in her eyes: We were dressed in our white t-shirts to show we were all women.
We all wanted peace. We were Liberian Women. We were Ghanaian Women. We were Nigerian women. And we were weeping and dancing and it was raining and we were in the rain dancing and singing and weeping.
They circled the building, holding hands and dancing. Unshaken in their message, ‘We Want Peace, No More War’.
While the women gathered outside the site of the peace talks in Accra, the war in Liberia continued to spread. They received a devastating call that all-out war had erupted in Monrovia, the capital city.
Charles Taylor fled the talks, hoping to save his own life. And the negotiations began to crumble. ‘I was just raging inside,’ Leymah said, ‘so I told the women, “Sit at the door and loop arms one with the other” ’ (Pray the Devil back to Hell 2008).
The women held the doors, refusing to let the men out. They would not allow anyone to leave until the peace agreement was signed.
When the men sitting behind closed doors finally realised what was happening, an announcement came through the overhead speakers: ‘The peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops’ (Pray the Devil back to Hell 2008).
Armed only with their tears, their song, their dance and their sisterhood, the women took control of the negotiating room. When several of the leaders attempted to escape, Leymah began stripping in front of the men – one of the greatest taboos in West African culture.
Finally, the head mediator of the peace talks, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the former head of state of Nigeria, turned to the men and said, ‘I dare anyone to leave this hall until we have negotiated with these women’ (Pray the Devil back to Hell 2008).
And with that, the men went back to the negotiating table and began constructing the terms of the agreement.
Two weeks later the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Government of Liberia, and LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia was signed.
The signing of a peace accord never ends violence. The women had much work to do, particularly with the reintegration of child soldiers.
Initially the United Nations (UN) excluded the women from the disarmament process. The women sat back, helplessly, and watched.
The child soldiers came, drugged and armed, and complete chaos ensued. Money for arms was not enough. Eventually, the UN turned to the women, who began their own approach to disarmament.
As victims of the war the women understood the complexity and gravity of disarmament. As mothers, they understood the suffering and needs of their children who had become machines of war. As women, they knew much more was needed than the signing of an agreement and the promise of money to sustain disarmament.
‘We offered a rehumanising approach,’ Leymah Gbowee explained. ‘We engaged in real relationships with the child soldiers. We saw them not as perpetrators of violence, but as our sons and daughters.’
They ate food together, laughed and cried together. ‘We had to rehumanise them in their powerlessness. We had to take away not only their guns but also their vulnerability. We had to give them a new kind of power.’
In the presence of their mothers, the children no longer found power in their guns, but in their relationships. ‘We took away their fear and gave them a new kind of boldness through love.’
In one village, the women chose to create a rebirthing ritual. They wore white, a colour symbolic of childbirth and peace. From outside the villages, they took the hands of their sons and daughters and began the long walk home. Mother and Son. Grandmother and Daughter.
Each woman walked, hands clasped, with one child soldier. As they walked, they sang. They sang songs of lament, songs of loss, songs of exile. And when they entered the village their voices rose in unison: jubilant songs of celebration spilled from their lips.
They sang their lost children home.
As the women became more involved in leading their villages towards reconciliation, they began to realise that sustainable change could only come if their voices were represented in the political process as well.
‘When I talked with the men,’ Leymah Gbowee (2006) explained, ‘I would tell them that you are only comfortable with empowerment and with women’s leadership as long as it doesn’t involve your own social structure. So during the war, women could engage in peacebuilding because it did not interfere with the immediate social structures.
But, when the war ended and communities started to come back together, women recognised that they could continue leading, but that is when the men tried to take away the voice of the women again. So the question then became, do we sit down again, or do we push this leadership so that it is sustained?’
The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign decided that they could no longer sit down, and they began a grassroots campaign to register women to vote in the hope of electing the first woman president in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
They travelled door to door, village to village, to meet and talk with women from all walks of life about the power of the democratic voting process.
They tended the market stands and babysat small children so that working women and mothers had the freedom to register. Woman to woman, they began once more to organise their masses, working beyond social and economic boundaries to bring democracy to Liberia. Eventually, more than 7,000 women registered to vote.
And on 23 November 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first woman president of Liberia. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign, which had contributed enormously to community reconciliation, to the signing of the Liberian Peace Accords, had now also entered the political realm.
The power they found, however, did not come from traditional notions of domination – but from a profound capacity to network; from the grassroots markets to the parliamentarians, women organised and transcended the barriers of class and political party to bring a new form of leadership to their country.
In desperation the women found voice. They broke the shackles of violence and exclusion placed on their hands and feet.
They danced, cried and sang their country back onto the long road towards healing.
This is an extract from When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation by John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach. Published by UQP.
A film about the Liberian Women’s Peace Action, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, is available on DVD.
Image: Pewee Flomoku, courtesy of Pray the Devil Back to Hell website.