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.

The Fine Line Between Self Defense & War Crimes

Throughout the last several years most of my studies have focused on issues going on around Sub-Saharan Africa. However, becoming more involved with Amnesty International in the city and meeting people from around the world I became anxious to learn about more and more cultures around the world. The Israel-Palestine conflict has never been one that I personally have been as informed on as I would like, and it still is not. However, I do know the difference between right and wrong and after spending the last week researching it as much as I could I have very mixed feelings.

I know the history is extremely complex. However, within recent months the casualties of Palestinians have been extremely high and the Israeli government seems relentless. After seeing media report after report come out with higher numbers of children and civilian casualties I cannot grasp how people through social media and even President Obama are so heavily backing the government of Israel. Both sides, meaning the Israeli government and Hamas should be held accountable. I understand that Israel is an ally to the U.S., but I also know that Benjamin Netanyahu is known for committing war crimes and standing behind atrocities in the Gaza Strip where people are basically refugees in their own land with no freedoms or human rights granted to them at all. I don’t understand how people in the world or the U.S. can look at them getting murdered with more plans coming out to increase the violence and not want to help them. I agree, the extremist groups like Hamas are also killing Israelis, and those should be condemned as well. People seem to not understand that there are families, children, husbands and wives that are not in these militia type groups that can not have the world turn their back on them so that Israel can murder them in self defense to Hamas. I read today that 44% of Gaza is under the age of 15. That’s nearly half, and explains why the child causality rate is so high. How is this right and how can people not care?

I also understand that because of the complexities that Israel may be on the defensive in feeling that if they back down that the violence will switch. So where does it end? Will it always be whoever is the weaker will be the victim of the defensive attacks of the other and so forth? It’s been going on for years–what is the solution? All I know is I do not agree with the U.S. standing so firmly behind Israel. Allies or not, they are murdering people and planning a ground attack that will increase these numbers even further. I feel concerned for what will happen in the coming days for these people. It amazes me, as usual, that this much suffering and fear is going on for other humans and so many people can easily go about their daily lives and the news reports spend a total of 3 minutes reporting anything. I feel strong emotions knowing that at this moment that is going on. I’m continuing to learn more so if you have any resources or things you think would be good to know I am open for discussion.

As I was typing this, I saw protestors on the news that are currently in Time Square. They were orthodox Jews that were protesting in support to end the suffering for the people of Gaza. Gave me a little bit of hope to see interfaith work in action for good to go to sleep with. Reminded me of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization I’ve been following very closely lately and I strongly recommend. It’s been a rough weekend. Between this conflict and the M23 rebels approaching Goma in DRC makes me feel very fired up again to do something to help and try to find a way to change. A friend of mine posted this today, and it fit in pretty well.