Protest and nonviolence

By Jackson Somes

At the second event of her stay at USD, Leymah Gbowee recalled waking up one day as a seventeen year old girl faced with the responsibilities of a woman twice that age. All the men were absent from the community and Liberia was in the throes of a brutal civil war, the second within a decade. With the men fighting in the war, Gbowee was not only challenged with the care of a family, but an entire community as well.

Arguably the most prominent leader of a peaceful, nonviolent movement in the 21st century, Gbowee began a movement for peace in her home country of Liberia. During the Second Liberian Civil War Gbowee organized and lead over 3,000 women to create the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Through a series of nonviolent protests the WLMAP was able to initiate peace talks among the two warring factions. These peace talks ultimately led to both peace for Liberia and the expulsion of the war-lord and dictator Charles Taylor.

Her event at the Institution for Peace and Justice theatre began promptly at 6 p.m., with every seat in the theater filled.

For the first portion of the event, Gbowee answered questions from a moderator seated right beside her.

The first question she fielded was about the moment that she knew her life would change and that she knew she needed to help bring peace to Liberia. She said that Liberia had lost its sense of community during the war, and that it is easy to understand how she was able to lead 3,000 women into action. Gbowee explained that the war had caused her to face unexpected responsibilities, that it had taken the men and boys from the community and that she was tired of the death and senseless violence.

When asked about how to communicate a peaceful, nonviolent message to current areas of violent conflict, Gbowee prefaced her response by jesting that she does not receive invitations to speak at those countries. She then followed up on a much more serious note.

She said that forming a coalition or a movement starts by finding a common cause under a single leader to avoid mixed messages. From there, a movement must move slowly and be given time to grow.
“It [the movement] needs to be nurtured,” she said.

Reflecting on her own personal experience as a woman, she said that it is sometimes necessary to break cultural boundaries.

“People expect you to be quiet because you are a woman,” she said. She added that speaking out about injustice and violence “doesn’t take a lot.”

As a spokesperson for change, Gbowee said it was important to have that representation and to speak out for that group.

Gbowee feels that if she is either afraid or ashamed to speak out for the constituency she represents, “then I have failed them.”

Later, Gbowee was asked about the role of the media in reporting the world news stories similar to the civil war in Liberia. Gbowee stated that the stories needed to move beyond the specific issues and report on the larger issues and human rights. The example she provided was to focus not on the act of rape, but how that woman continues to provide for her family following a rape.

Referring to her own appearances on news networks, Gbowee said that she will not appear on a news show because it will make the network look good, but rather because she has a message she wants the audience to receive.

“I am not an ornament,” she said.

As a comical side note, Gbowee added that when she was first being interviewed by the most popular journalists in America she was a little nervous. She then reminded herself that those journalists were in “good company” because they were interviewing the “most powerful woman in Africa.” Laughter burst from the audience.

The event then moved to questions from the crowd. Audience members formed a line behind a single microphone located in the aisle of the theater to ask their question.

One audience member asked for Gbowee’s sentiments about feminist movements around the world to which Gbowee stressed action.

“Make this thing a fight” she exclaimed, following up by saying how much she hates language and talking without any action.

Expressing clear frustration, Gbowee said that the woman’s rights movement was “too slow” and that women’s issues are always delayed.