Why It’s Crucial to Include Women in Peace-Building: Excerpts from Leymah Gbowee’s Memoir

Gift bags from the Women in the World Next Generation Leadership Academy allowed the inspiration to continue beyond the event with an amazing memoir by Leymah Gbowee.

Gift bags from the Women in the World Next Generation Leadership Academy allowed the inspiration to continue beyond the event with an amazing memoir by Leymah Gbowee.

I first encountered Leymah Gbowee when I saw her speak at the Women in the World 2012 summit. I wrote a blog about her for Girls Who Rock and was looking up videos for the better part of a night that showed her giving interviews. What struck me most was not just how inspirational she was, but her great sense of humor.  Recently, I was lucky enough to have another Women in the World event in my life when I was accepted into their Next Generation Leadership Academy. In the gift bags they so generously gave to us was Leymah Gbowee’s memoir. Remembering the woman I saw on the stage in 2012, reading her story was incredible. It showed her personal life in Liberia throughout the years of war as she faced death, domestic violence, health issues, fleeing the country, refugee camps, and family heart aches. Throughout her personal struggles and the war that tore Liberia apart, she overcame what would seem like the impossible to show the strength that women have in peace building. Her passion and belief in the power of women is what helped to finally put an end to years of conflict.

As I read, I tend to take notes. When I went back through the book once I had finished, I saw within the first few pages I had written “hope and courage” at the top. That’s because this woman’s story and the women she portrayed were examples of those two things to the full extent. Prefacing the book, she touched on what the world is used to seeing of women because of the media.

“Now watch the reports again, but look more carefully, at the background, for that is where you will find the women. You’ll see us fleeing, weeping, kneeling before our children’s graves. In the traditional telling of war stories, women are always in the background. Our suffering is just a sidebar to the main tale; when we’re included, it’s for “human interest.” If we are African, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted solely as pathetic–hopeless expressions, torn clothes, sagging breasts. Victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to, and the image that sells.”

It made me wonder, why is the media still reporting in this same way as it always has? With the world changing and an interest in human rights, social good, and women’s issues, is the world finally ready to see women as a source for hope and courage instead of always just the victims? At the Women in the World Leadership Academy, Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, made a very important point. Women victims of war and violence are not just getting help, but they are teaching those of us who haven’t experienced such atrocities what courage really means…what it really means to look fear in the face and be brave. This change in reporting would not just be the right thing to do, but it could benefit multiple cultures allowing empowerment and understanding to cross borders.

These women living through conflict are the ones who have really come to know it. “Why were women, who bore the brunt of war, expected to remain quiet while men debate how to make peace?”  Listening to this local community is crucial for peace building.  Gbowee used this as a tool as she gathered women to join the peace movement and stand up to their leaders and demand an end to the violence.

 “As part of adapting it to the situation in Liberia, we were supposed to identify local leaders and groups throughout the country and teach them how to teach others. By helping people and communities heal themselves, we’d be helping our fragmented, suffering country mend itself.”

Although women often suffer the most during war through domestic violence heightened by the stress on the family, rape, seeing their husband/children murdered or kidnapped, lacking control over their bodies as husbands often are forceful for sex causing multiple unwanted pregnancies during a time when money and health resources are scarce, and desperation leading to options such as prostitution instead of education. Through all of this, it seems that “women are sponges.” They must take in what is going on around them and with their families without truly having an outlet to talk about it. Early in Gbowee’s social work career, she discovered how important this outlet was as one woman who was so grateful for one of her sessions expressed its importance.

“The UN brings us food and shelter and clothes, what you’ve brought is much more valuable. You’ve come to hear the stories from our bellies. Stories that no one else asks us about. Please, don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.”

“You can’t cure trauma when violence is ongoing, so the primary effort must be working for peace. You can’t negotiate a lasting peace without bringing women into the effort, but women can’t become peacemakers without releasing the pain that keeps them from feeling their own strength.”

Through these sessions, a movement began to formulate. “They built a form of sisterhood that transcended the power of guns.” These sisterhoods even spread across the borders throughout north west Africa. When Liberia once again fell into war, the connection allowed women to be less alone as collections were taken up to help with any emergencies. This shows the importance of getting to know the faces behind the conflict and just how strong a group of women can be even if they are from different backgrounds. “Over the last few months, we had discovered a new source of power and strength: each other.”

“I did not meet helpless victims, but women of strength, bravery, and determination.”

The women that Gbowee organized showed the changes they can make because they understand the culture and the war firsthand. International help and aid was important, but it seemed that it wasn’t doing its best. It wasn’t reaching its full potential in the difference it could make in such dire circumstances for one simple reason: nobody was listening to the citizens of Liberia who were living it.

“The UN and ECOMOG peacekeepers could provide only temporary help. Above all, they wanted to get back to their own homes alive. We needed to help ourselves.”

“You can tell people of the need to struggle, but when the powerless start to see that they really can make a difference, nothing can quench that fire.”

“[UN Agency] never consulted with anyone from civil society how best to do things. The result was entirely avoidable disasters…Every war is different…People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they’re not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.”

Post war Liberia is still filled with its share of issues. “Unemployment is around 85%, only half our population can read or write, and life expectancy hovers at fifty-eight years. Official corruption remains rampant and crime is a serious problem.” But what these women showed in the face of a brutally violent war, was that there is always hope. If you don’t have hope, then what other option do you have? Some of these points really stuck with me as words of wisdom to keep that hope alive and keep moving forward.

“Peacebuilding to me isn’t ending a fight by standing between two opposing forces. It’s healing those victimized by war, making them strong again, and bringing them back to the people they once were. It’s helping victimizers rediscover their humanity so they can once again become productive members of their communities. Peace-building is teaching people that resolving conflict can be done without picking up a gun. It’s repairing societies in which the guns have been used, and not only making them whole, but better.”

“There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible,” Gandhi said. “But in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.”

“Because of women like us, I believe that in the end tyranny will never succeed, and goodness will always vanquish evil.”

It is common that when wars do come to an end, the attention is drawn away from the region and they quickly become forgotten. However, war leaves devastation that is equally as important to tend to so a country and communities can rebuild to prevent violence in the future. Walking out immediately after a peace deal is only a recipe for more destabilization.  This is when it’s important to look at social topics. Some preventative measure in the book suggested having these women and girls stories told on a global stage and making them heard, finding those who would like to run for office and training them/matching them with mentors, and teaching activism to young women.

“Donor communities invest billions funding peace talks and disarmament. Then they stop. The most important part of postwar help is missing: providing basic social services to people.”

“We had survived the war, but now we had to remember how to live. Peace isn’t a moment–it’s a very long process.”

To fill in the gaps that wouldn’t quite fit into a blog entry including details on the Liberian wars, Leymah Gbowee’s life, and the women’s movements and organizations she organized as well as those that are still helping throughout Africa and the world today, I suggest checking out her memoir for yourself and watching the documentary Pray The Devil Back To Hell.

Lessons Learned and Ideas Inspired by Kofi Annan’s Memoir

Kofi Photo

After recently finishing Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, I found myself not being able to stop thinking about many of the points he made. After jotting down random notes, underlines, and bookmarking several pages, I wanted to put this all together somewhere that I could reference in the future. His ideals on peacekeeping made so much sense in a world that is often chaotic with unnecessary conflict. Without letting himself be influenced by major powers, including the United States, he stayed true to what he believed in even if it led to disagreements with the security council or permanent UN member states.

A Christmas gift from my fiance, he bought it for me because of my curiosity for the UN, passion for peace keeping and preventing mass atrocities, and recent experience in Ghana and admiration of their culture. It resonated with me how Annan’s ideals and values seemed to stem from the culture I experienced while I was volunteering in Ghana this past summer. It also coincided with my belief in the benefits of cross-cultural communication and understanding. Not only would it eliminate conflicts essentially based on cultural misunderstandings, as many of the wars in the world often resonate, but also nations could learn how to better themselves by taking in lessons and ideas from places different from themselves. I know the United States and other major western powers often spread their practices to other countries with intentions of bettering theirs, but there is a lot that these powerful nations can learn from others as well. I thought of this a lot once I returned from Ghana and reflected in a post on who really are the rich and lucky ones in the world, and how are those two areas defined. In Annan’s writing, I found another example that especially if the United States related it to congress and our partisan conflicts today, might help finally move the country forward.

“For Ghanians, the concept of the African palaver tree has always been a tangible part of our heritage, and a source of the relative peace and harmony among myriad tribes and religions. A place to meet and talk, to seek compromise and settle disputes, to bridge differences and foster unity–this was the meaning of the palaver tree.”

“If you have a problem and you can’t find a solution, you meet again tomorrow and you keep talking until you find a solution. You can disagree with behavior or a particular position, but you do not resort to calling an opponent worthless. This notion extends to the relationship between traditional chiefs and their tribes, where there is accountability in the case of abuse or arrogance, including providing for the removal of chiefs who have lost the trust and respect of their people.”

What if this was the way for Congress and the White House today in the United States? Annan also highlights similar lessons he learned from his father.

“He taught me that when others insisted that sides must be chosen, and that it had to be either/or, there was another way that was truer to the reality of a complex world. His own life had been defined by the coexistence of tribe and language, place and purpose–the mix of heritage and hope that could bring Africa a new beginning, with dignity at its core.”

Annan also brought up a point of spreading democracy. An area I always questioned, because different cultures have different needs, he claimed that African countries are actually not being “westernized” when accepting democracy. It is in fact an idea that used to exist for them before colonization though not called democracy at the time, but contained many of the same ideals. As an African, he also stood strongly on the fact that colonization could no longer be used as an excuse for Africa’s problems. They need to look forward rather than letting the past inhibit them forever. Many countries such as Rwanda and Ghana have proven to be successful and peaceful democracies in recent years. They can serve as a model for states around them with cultural similarities, but who are still stuck under the result of a long military coup that took over once they obtained their freedom again and allowed corruption and prejudice to run rampid.

Under Annan, The United Nations also made poverty alleviation a global fight. Prior to September 11th, Annan reflected on near success of having the permanent member states ready to commit their share to make this goal closer to a reality. However, after September 11th this was pushed to the side. A very ironic move considering that poverty and all of the aspects that come along with it (lack of education, hunger, disease, etc.) are often what push men into extremist terrorist cells. Fighting poverty would likely have a considerably better result on the fight against terrorism than going in and fighting in countries that are already facing instability. This new tension, fear, and instability only leads to the growing number of terrorist activity which is now showing up in recent reports from the use of drones, for example. Imagine constantly living in fear and anxiety as unmanned killing machines flew above you without ever knowing when they would unleash their weapons. I think that may be enough to drive any person into a panic.

He touched on the importance of empowering women to make a substantial difference in the world, a common theory arising today and the importance of contraception access to give women these equal opportunities and also in reducing HIV/AIDS infections that continue to make it impossible for state’s with lack of awareness and resources to rise above.

In the situation in the Middle East he stood for the change the Arab Spring was working to bring, and sympathized with the battles they faced to finally have a better future that must include focus on young people and women to fully succeed. He reflected on lessons in Bosnia and Kosovo (an area I need to learn more about), and the cruelties between Israel and Palestine. To this day Israel continues its disagreements with the United Nations, seeing them as siding against them. Annan showed it in a way that showed the instability rising up over history, but the extreme retaliations often coming from the Israeli government only deepened the instability. That, and their persistance to not recognize international law and Palestine as a state, giving Palestinians a chance at rights and growth rather than keeping them oppressed, again something that feeds into growing extremist groups. An example here being Hamas.

He touched on the struggle during Rwanda as the world turned its back was especially interesting, since after the tragedy in Somalia gave nations reluctance to put troops on the ground in a country again. This has consistently undermined the theory of “responsibility to protect” that holds true how our world today is more interconnected than ever. A threat to peace anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere. We are very much a part of a global society.

As you can see there is so much inside the pages of this book, I’m sure I could go on talking about it forever. It’s great to read a perspective of someone who is on the side of all the world’s peoples rather than biased by what nation he may belong to. This was especially apparent to me in the chapters regarding the U.S. invading Iraq despite disapproval from the security council. We are seeing the results of this mistake now as we leave the country still in turmoil.

Annan consistently kept hope alive throughout the horrific tragedies he was faced with. Important to do in order to inspire future peace makers and not turn anyone away from a situation that may seem impossible.

“A Swahili proverb holds that “You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail.” Turning the sail-from conflict prevention to economic development, peacekeeping, human rights, and climate change-is now more than ever in the hands of each and every one of us. The wind will follow its own unsettled course, but men and women in every society today have the ability to determine their destiny in ways unimaginable in past eras. Tyrants and bigots, warlords and criminals, the exploiters of human capital and destroyers of our natural resources, will always be with us, but their sails are not the only ones that can harness the wind.”

His main goal in working to provide more legitimacy to the United Nations was to show that sovereignty was not something that a state could hide behind any longer to deny its citizens their human rights. The United Nations was “for the peoples” along with for the states and governments must be held accountable for the behavior toward its citizens.

A Deadly War Funded By Your Cell Phone: Conflict Minerals and The Congo (Interactivist, fall 2010)


photo illustration by RACHAEL LEMKE
photographed by SARA SALMAN

My story from the InterActivist.  For more information about how to make a difference visit enoughproject.org

What if you found out that purchasing your next cell phone, iPod, laptop or video game was funding one of the most violent and deadly wars to date? The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) currently has claimed over 5.4 million lives, with that number growing each and every day. Such a large number can be hard to imagine. Consider Ohio University being completely wiped out 315.35 times. That is the impact this war is having on one African nation. Congo

Patrick Litanga is a Graduate Student at OU earning his degree in African Studies. Litanga lived in Kinshasa, the capital city of the DRC, until 2000. He has had first-hand experience with the violence that is still going on there. “I met with child soldiers and was arrested twice. It was extremely frightening,” he said. “I was lucky they let me go because the child interrogating me spoke my language.”

The children that had captured Litanga were between 8 and 10 years old. Litanga was 21 at the time. These children carried large weapons and dressed in their war clothing. “I remember seeing an 8-year-old boy carrying an AK-47 that was covered in Mickey Mouse stickers [while] riding a BMX bike with a hip-hop necklace on—these kids were the ones deciding who will live and who was the enemy,” Litanga said.

There are four main minerals that technological agencies are purchasing from the DRC to use in electronics: tin, tantalum, gold and tungsten. These four materials are not only funding the war, but are giving it the incentive and means to continue to claim lives.

CongoAccording to Litanga, the areas where these minerals are found are located in a very dangerous corner of the DRC. In this corner, rebel armies from Burundi, the DRC and Rwanda (including exiled Hutu tribe members), as well as the Lord’s Resistance Army, are primarily located. In these areas, children are exploited and forced to work in mining, and women are raped. Everybody is at the mercy of the rebels. The minerals being mined are then shipped to a refinery in Australia. United States’ businesses purchase such minerals from this refinery because it is very cheap compared to minerals coming from other areas such as Canada. However, the U.S. isn’t the only country funding this war by buying conflict minerals—other countries, like China, are doing the same. Litanga believes there needs to be “international pressure” in order to make an effective change and have a chance at ending a war that has been going on since 1998.

Ohio University is giving its students a chance to step up and make their campus conflict-free. Ellie Hamrick, a student at OU, is an anthropology major who has taken the initiative to spread the word and inform her fellow students of this crisis that she is extremely passionate about. She urges students to pledge themselves to be conflict-free by going to the Enough Project webpage (www.enoughproject.org) and joining the national campaign called Raise Hope for Congo. Hamrick says that by joining this campaign, students will be pressuring electronic companies to purchase from suppliers who aren’t getting conflict minerals from the DRC. This marketing will hopefully cause companies to fall into the conflict-free cycle.

CongoIt is not an impossible task. “Stanford University has already become a conflict-free campus. It’s our turn to do the same,” Hamrick said.

Hamrick has a plan for OU since she has already had a great deal of success. Her first initiative was to start a Facebook group to spread awareness and keep students informed of her plan. The Facebook group, called “Bobcats for a Conflict-Free Campus,” already has over 200 members and is still growing. Hamrick’s first piece of advice for those wanting to participate in this movement is to “join the Facebook group to not only stay informed, but publicly show others how many people are committed to supporting this cause on Ohio University’s campus.” Hamrick’s next step was presenting a resolution for the cause to OU’s Student Senate. She said the resolution is “urging OU to alter elect by changing its purchasing policy, monitoring its supply chain and tracing the regions that their supplies come from.”

On Oct. 13, 2010, the resolution passed at the Student Senate meeting. Although Hamrick was the leader, others also contributed to the resolution, like Anna Weisheimer, a business major who is also an East Green representative for Student Senate. At the meeting, after many questions were asked, the resolution passed unanimously. Many of the student senators spoke in support of the bill.

This resolution was passed during the open dialogue portion of the meeting. “Student Senate makes the cause more legitimate by writing up a resolution and bringing it to students and possibly even Ohio University’s President Roderick McDavis,” said Weisheimer. She also mentioned that though the resolution passed, the administration will continue to communicate with the Information Technology department (OUIT) to spread even more awareness.

CongoWeisheimer thought it was important for the student body to know about this weekly opportunity to present ideas to Student Senate—especially for all student activists, like Hamrick, who are trying to make a difference for a cause they are passionate about. Those who are interested in taking an idea to Student Senate should use the Student Senate webpage, contact the office in Baker Center, or schedule a presentation at the speak-out section of their meetings. “They rarely have anyone participate in this section, and it would be nice to see students more active and involved to help Student Senate increase their visibility,” Weisheimer said. “This year’s Student Senate is very open to taking radical ideas seriously.” These meetings take place at 7:15 p.m. every Wednesday in Walter Hall, Room 235.

Passing the Student Senate resolution was the first step in the right direction to being a conflict-free campus. Hamrick’s next step is setting up meetings with the OUIT so she and other delegates can pressure them to keep track of where their electronics are coming from. Hamrick also plans to start a public pressure campaign on campus and use petitions, flyers, speakers and protests to raise more awareness. She believes that if more students show their support, it will show administrators how important this issue is to OU students and sway them to pledge their support as well. This would officially make OU a conflict-free campus.

According to Hamrick, “Older people [in their 60s and 70s] talk about our generation seeming inactive and unmotivated. I’m excited to see this movement develop on campus and affect our daily lives. It is huge and emotional, and something we have control over. Passing something like this because we have leverage gives hope for ending conflict and provides motivation.”

Litanga thinks that awareness and communication on campus are very important. Such communication helps students know which companies to purchase electronics from. Maybe those companies will eventually offer a student discount for supporting electronics that don’t use conflict minerals.

Hamrick urges people wanting to get involved to join the Facebook group and to contact her directly. A member can serve as a delegate, help advertise, participate in demonstrations, and pledge to be conflict-free themselves.

“There is no price for human rights,” Weisheimer said. Purchasing minerals from an area that is murdering millions, raping women, and recruiting children soldiers in order to get a cheaper product is an unethical practice. It’s time for this issue to be exposed. If OU students, as well as people around the world, pledge their support, they can help bring an end to the war that has caused death, pain and suffering to millions of people.

Originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of The InterActivist.