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Liberian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee: How a Sex Strike Propelled Men to Refuse War

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Liberian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, one of the 1,000 female peace activists gathered to mark the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, recalls her work in leading a women’s peace movement that brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. “We were constantly trying to imagine strategies that would be effective,” Gbowee says. “The men in our society were really not taking a stance. … We decided to do a sex strike to kind of propel these silent men into action.” Gbowee notes the idea for the strike came from a Muslim woman and was inspired in part by the civil rights movement in the United States. Gbowee shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with fellow Liberian Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemeni native Tawakkul Karman. She is the founder and president of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa based in Liberia.

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StoryOct 07, 2011Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Activist Leymah Gbowee Honored for Peace, Equality Work
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AMY GOODMAN: Leymah Gbowee, you helped to end the Second Civil War in Liberia and jailed the president, Charles Taylor. Talk about how you accomplished this. Here, of the three of you, you most recently won the Nobel Prize, in 2011. What did you do in Liberia?

LEYMAH GBOWEE: Well, one of the things that we were able to accomplish in Liberia was bringing together groups that would not necessarily come together to build peace: Christian and Muslim. If you look at the world and the order of the world today, there is a lot of religious extremism and fundamentalism. We had those subtle kinds of issues in Liberia at the time, because whilst all of the different warring factions were from the different ethnic groups, where there were undertones, religious undertones, and we knew that if we had to build peace, we needed to bring not just the women together, but women from diverse background. We have 16 ethnic groups, and with the two major religious groups in Liberia, Christian and Muslims. So we were able to bring those women together to work together.

And I would say one of the strategies we used was the whole strategy of reconceptualizing religious spaces. A lot of the times, people use religion as a means of disempowering women. And if you go into the Qur’anic text and even in the Bible, you’ll find there were some great women. So we use the examples of those very great women to talk about how they helped to change their time. As a Christian and working with Christian women, we used Deborah, Esther. They were engaged in political issues in biblical times. And once the narrative of those women had been kind of reconceptualized, the women were able to resonate with it and were able to bring them together, but also not just bringing the groups together, but to protest nonviolently. Fourteen years of violent uprising. We started with two groups, the government and the warring faction, the rebel group. By 2003, we had gone through almost 12 or 13 different armed groups. And so, everyone’s response to the war was bringing in more violence or bringing in more guns. And we realized that if there were changes that should happen in Liberia, it had to be nonviolent. So we protested. We did sit-ins. We were just like invading spaces that women would not necessarily be in.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Charles Taylor, the president, respond to you?

LEYMAH GBOWEE: Well, initially, when we started, we had done an invitation to get him to come and listen to us. And people said, “Well, if you send one invitation, he’s going to say he didn’t get it.” And I remember us doing six invitations—one to him directly to his office, one through his religious council, one through his wife, one through the speaker of Parliament, one through the president of the Senate, and one through, I think, his national security person. So six letters of invitation for one event. There was no way that he could have said he didn’t receive the letters, because we had multiple people telling us they hand-delivered it. Of course he didn’t show up, because he didn’t know how to respond to us.

We sat, and we just decided we’re going to protest and demand three things: immediate unconditional ceasefire, dialogue and the intervention—international intervention force. Those were the three things that Taylor has specifically and explicitly said to the international community at the time he wasn’t going to do. Liberia was a sovereign nation, and he was not going to allow foreign troops on the ground. He was a legitimate president, and he wasn’t going to sit with illegitimate groups, and that talking with them was just—and that he would fight until the last soldier died. And so, going to him with the things that he was defying the world with, and saying, “We will protest until you give us,” and so it’s more or less you’re defying the world, and we are defying you, that we will continue to invade your space until you give it to us. So, those—and finally, he had to give in. And finally, he had to say, “OK, I’ll go to the peace table.” But then, going to the peace table did not end our protests. We continued until the pressure from us, the pressure from other African leaders and the rest of the world forced his arms to resign at the end of the day, so…

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, I want to ask you about the sex strikes that you engaged in in Liberia that made an enormous difference. We are joined right now by Leymah Gbowee—she is the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner; Mairead Maguire, who won the prize in 1976; and you will also be hearing from Jody Williams, who won in 1997. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting live from The Hague, from the World Forum of The Hague. It’s the hundredth anniversary of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting live from The Hague, from the World Forum at The Hague in the Netherlands. It’s the hundredth anniversary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. One hundred years ago, a thousand women, in the midst of World War I, gathered here. A thousand years later, they have—rather, 100 years later, they have gathered again, calling for peace in very violent times. Among those who are here are four Nobel Peace Prize winners. Later in the week, we will speak to Dr. Shirin Ebadi of Iran. Right now we’re joined by the three other Nobel laureates. Tawakkul Karman was supposed to come from Yemen; she wasn’t able to, given the strife there. But we are joined by Mairead Maguire, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, by Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, and by Leymah Gbowee, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

So, we’re at The Hague, Leymah, and here is where Charles Taylor was tried, the first head of state in the world to be tried before an international court modeled on the Nuremberg trials, and got 50 years, not for atrocities committed in your country, Liberia, where he was head of state, but in Sierra Leone. Fifty years, he was sentenced to. He’s in prison now in London. But I want to go back to this issue of the sex strikes, one of the strategies you used to bring in end to war in Liberia.

LEYMAH GBOWEE: Well, when we started, I must say, we weren’t as sophisticated as the Dr. Kings and the Mandelas of the world. We were few women. A few of us had read some of the stories of these great men, and women—Rosa Parks and other people, women who had done great work, including the celebration that we find ourselves in in The Hague. But we were constantly thinking on our feet, constantly trying to imagine strategies that will be effective. When we started our protest, we barely got the media’s attention, not local media and definitely not the international media. Once we put out there, and it was a real strategy that—we felt like the men in our society were really not taking a stand. They were either fighters or they were very silent and accepting all of the violence that was being thrown at us as a nation. So we decided we’ll do this sex strike to kind of propel the silent men into action. So if you had a beer buddy who was a warlord, you needed to encourage him to lay down his arms. And the way we were trying to do that was to pressurize the partners that we had, husbands and partners who were also sometimes silent in the entire scheme of the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Who came up with this idea?

LEYMAH GBOWEE: A Muslim woman, my colleague, well, very good friend of mine, Asatu Bah Kenneth. She’s like, “We’re going to do a sex strike.” And it was like, “Whoa!” for me, because usually the stereotypes we have about Muslim women is that they are quiet, obedient, and that they do not have those kinds of, you know, mind. But she was the one who came up with the idea.

And once we put it out there, it became a huge issue, first not in our—in our community, it wasn’t because sex is exotic, even though it is, but people wanted to know who were these women to even dare their husbands or the men, who are supposed to be in power, to say they won’t give sex because of the war. The international media wanted to know: How can you refuse sex, when rape is the order of the day in your culture, in your society? So, all of these lingering questions made it a very good strategy for talking about, because every time we went to do press and they wanted to know about this sex strike, we had to go about every other reason why we were doing it before this, so it became a very good media strategy for the work that we were doing at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did the war end?

LEYMAH GBOWEE: Well, when we had pressured the government, Taylor, for the first time when we met him, over 2,000 women turned out on that day. And it was one of really those amazing days where you have dictator who would say, “You can come and see me,” and it’s probably a test, because people were afraid of this man, afraid of the huge amount of guns that were in the town. And we get there, but the women, they’re standing somewhere else, and get to his palace, and they say, “We have instruction that if you’re less than 20, you shouldn’t come in,” because they had underestimated us. They thought women would not show up, because we were going to see Taylor. So my question to the guards were: “If we are more than 20?” And he was like, “You can come.” So, standing there, one phone call formed a line and just a sea of white coming down the hill. And it was like, these women are really serious. And then, all of a sudden, we get a call from in his office that he’s not feeling well and that he will see only 10 of us. And I was really furious. I said, “No, if he can’t come to see all of us, we will leave.” And his guards were like, “Who is this woman, who is just really too militant for her own good?”

Finally, he agreed to come out to see all of us. We challenged him. He offered us seats. We refused to sit. We sat on the floor. “Given the rationale that your war has taken all of our furniture,” said we, “why should we sit in a chair when we come to see you?” So, afterwards, he said, “Well, if any group of people can get me to commit to going to do peace, it’s the women. And I’m promising you that I will go to the peace table.” For us, that was the challenge. We will keep the pressure on in country, but we also have to go find the warlords in the bushes, give them a position statement, then go to the peace talks and be present. And so, we were there keeping the pressure up for many months. And one day we got tired, and we seized the entire hall, locked the men in and said they would not come out until we had a peace agreement signed. We were going to almost a third month of a peace process that should have lasted three weeks. After we did our locking in of the men and giving our own position to them that this is what we want, two weeks later we got a peace agreement signed. But signing the agreement was good. We went back. Women decided just to follow through the entire process.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Leymah Gbowee, how does it feel today for you to be here at The Hague, where President Charles Taylor was tried, now in prison for 50 years—he’s imprisoned in Britain, just lost his latest appeal—and your co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia?

LEYMAH GBOWEE: Well, one of the things that I—when I look at the life and legacy of President Taylor, it tells a lot about ordinary people and their ability to forgive. When Liberians elected Taylor, it wasn’t because they were so afraid of him. They wanted to give him the opportunity to redeem himself. Instead of pursuing a policy of reconciliatory democracy, he decided to rule instead of leading, came to The Hague, was tried, found guilty.

There are two things. I was happy because the people of Sierra Leone—their war in Sierra Leone, just like the war in Liberia, wars in everywhere, was horrifying, horrific on the lives of women and children, and that someone, finally, some big guy, was answering to the rest of the world. It just—Taylor was the example for the world that we will no longer sit and allow people to come and treat their citizens or their next-door neighbors as if they were people on their plantation. So, this is—even if other leaders are not paying or pretend not to be paying attention, some of the leaders that we have today that are choosing the path of gangster ruling, they’re worried, because if it could happen to a Charles Taylor, it could happen to us, too. So I was happy that justice, in that form, was served.

My sadness on that verdict is that when I was growing up, we constantly saw the scale of justice—at our Ministry of Justice in Liberia, in the Temple of Justice, they had this big scale, where it was balanced. And they had this thing: “Let justice be done to all men.” In my mind and during my entire socialization, I understand justice to be balanced. Taylor’s trial, his conviction is well and good, but I feel like the scale was tilted in his favor. Those who were amputated in Sierra Leone, who is giving them food? He’s in a prison in the U.K., and he has the luxury of three meals a day, a warm bed during winter, a cool bed during summer. Some of these people have two arms or both arms hacked. Who is providing meals for them? Who is taking care of their children? Taylor, I feel, for that scale to be balanced, all of his loots—or part of his loot should be given to Liberia, and the rest of it given to the victims of the Sierra Leonean war. Then the scale will be balanced. That’s my take.

AMY GOODMAN: Leymah Gbowee, I was walking down 125th Street, Harlem, the other day, and I was passing the Apollo Theater, and your name was up in lights, coming to the Apollo on June 12th, I think they said.

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