The following questions were selected from a Q+A with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia originally carried on Facebook by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Gbowee, a peace activist, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in leading a women’s peace movement that brought an end to the Liberian civil war in 2003. Today Gbowee, 42, speaks on behalf of women and girls around the world.
1. Question submitted by Barbara Hart: Why are women essential partners in leading peaceful change?
Specific groups’ feelings of marginalization are a major cause of conflict today, specifically in developing nations. Peaceful change for any society entails the involvement of everyone. Women as partners in peace processes consider the segment and thematic concerns of society that are most often left out of a male-driven peace initiative; for example the focus on reducing access to weapons for combatants, but not on an educational system that drove them to radicalism; the focus on retribution for political enemies while ignoring rehabilitation and community reunification. There is no way you can do peace and still reinforce issues and concerns that contributed to war. Women in spaces of peace-building tend most often to highlight these issues and offer ways forward without seeking their personal interest or political agenda.
2. Question submitted by Josh Chaffin: How has the Nobel Peace Prize award changed (or not) your ability to advocate for your issues?
I call myself a local girl with a global platform. The prize has provided me with a global platform to broaden the conversation about war, peace, stability and women’s involvement. Women and girls have always been affected by war and are primarily viewed as victims only. The prize enhanced my ability to highlight not only my own work in centring women in the peace process, but also the work of women in other spaces, with the aim of demystifying the age-old stereotype of women as victims. As my fellow Nobel Laureate Jodie Williams puts it “The prize is a huge tool” for doing good. It amplifies the voices of the less privileged while advocating for change on issues of peace, justice and human rights.
3. Question submitted by Chiara Trincia: How do we make gains in gender equality in the post-2015 MDG framework?
I think the key words are “relentless advocacy” to provide alternative policies and action plans that are vetted by women and proven effective. The second but very important point is political will backed by budgetary allocation. A framework is useless unless it is institutionalized at the national and local levels with adequate funds to ensure its implementation. This hinges primarily on national governments’ willingness to fund the mechanisms that deliver meaningful results for people at the local level.
4. Question submitted by Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church Moclips Washington: What is your view of women's role in international peacemaking, individually or collectively?
As stated in the first answer, peace processes are primarily a nation’s way of “redoing” their society, where actors review different rules and laws and try to improve them. Women are pivotal to this process not because they are women but because they constitute half of the population, and have unique, innovative ways of building peace. Adopted in October 2000, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 “urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts … [and] women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security,” according to UN Women. Yet women are excluded from peace negotiations and peace building at the international level. We saw this earlier this year when Syrian women were excluded from peace talks in Geneva.
5. Question submitted by Katie Nguyen, Thomson Reuters Foundation journalist: What are the top three challenges facing Liberian women at the moment?
Solidarity—Women still have a lot of work to do to preserve the peace. Liberia has enjoyed over 10 years without civil war and women are a key aspect. Unlike my five older teenagers, my youngest daughter has no memory of war. This is what the women of Liberia fought so hard to achieve. The women of the peace movement were of different ethnic groups, religions, spoke different languages and belonged to different political parties. But we were united for a cause. When we elected our first woman president, we believed the work was complete—the war was over. But rebuilding Liberia requires our united efforts still. Our differences remain but we still have shared goals for the country: A quality education and healthcare system accessible to all; a responsive and fair justice system; and responsible stewardship of our natural resources. When the guns were laid down, the real work of post-reconstruction was just beginning. We must continue to mobilize around our shared interests to ensure our children have no reason to pick up a gun again.
Cultivating the Next Generation of Leaders—The election of Africa’s first female head of state inspired great hope among women that we would have a seat at the decision-making table. But our children need an education that will equip them to take up the mantle. Liberia still does not have a shared narrative on the causes of war taught in schools. Therefore, each ethnic group circulates its own narrative that enables divisiveness. Our president acknowledged the education system was “in a mess” and last year it showed: All 25,000 students failed the entrance exam to the country’s largest public university. Liberian women now occupy the highest positions in government. Without a strong educational system, we cannot cultivate new leaders to build upon this generation’s achievements.
Access to Quality Education—Liberia has high youth unemployment and a poor healthcare system. A quality education will prepare young people for careers in the formal sector and improve the quality of healthcare services. Liberian women want the best for their children. Education is the most effective way to ensure our children can meaningfully participate in the growth of the country, and build a better future for themselves.
6. Question submitted by Nancy Deyo from Women’s Refugee Commission: What advice would you give to other women in war-torn areas who are trying to bring peace to their countries?
The first step is to start within yourself. You cannot give power or strength or even peace to the community if you do not already have it within yourself to give. Years ago in 2003, the official last year of the Liberian war, I met an old lady. She participated in the protests regularly, filled with energy though her pockets were empty. She arrived every day to protest. One day, I arrived early and saw that she was present. We talked about our lives and our families. I told her about my two sons alive living with my sister. She told me about her two sons who had died as a result of the war. She explained that she protested to ensure that no other woman would lose her children as she had. This woman found strength and peace within, and worked to give it to others.
The next step is to dialogue, to talk among yourselves and with other about the issues that affect the personal and the political, and about the divisions. Dialogue in my opinion is the key to building solidarity. This can be done by starting small and identifying your allies. Movements need to be nurtured like a garden: You expel the weeds, you plant the seeds, you tend and care for it, help it to grow. A strong ally is critical to keeping your energy up and your sanity intact.
For women who do not live in war-torn areas, peace is not assured. There is no civil war in Brazil but it has one of the highest murder rates in the world. There is no civil war in the U.S., but every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted and 97 percent of perpetrators go unpunished. Peace is fragile, and requires vigilance even when a country is not officially at war. The same energy and outspokenness required to demand peace is needed to preserve it.