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.

What Did I Do in 2012?

With 2012 flying by so fast, I wanted to document some of its highlights. For me it was a big year with a lot of growing and changing to work toward the person I’m trying to be. I’m often good at being too hard on myself trying to figure the world out immediately, that I forget that it takes time to learn and to realize what I’ve already accomplished.

I rang in 2013 with some of my favorite New Yorkers including Sarabeth, Elle, Brad, and of course my boyfriend Jon. We started off the evening at McSorleys before heading into Williamsburg to feel classy at a jazz bar. Even with living in NYC, I will never have any desire to go anywhere near Time Square.

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Jon and I at McSorleys

February brought my 4th Jack’s Mannequin concert. I’ve seen him in Cleveland twice, Columbus once, and now NYC. Sadly, he announced that the band was ending in November of this year.

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Andrew McMahon at Irving Plaza

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a part of Young Professionals of Amnesty International, we put on our “Make A Date with YPAI” event. At Lolita in downtown Manhattan we held the event to take action for LGBT rights including issues such as DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We had speakers who were professors, heads of organizations including In The Life Media, and ended the night with 2 transgender comedians and spoken word artist Athens Boys Choir.

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Myself speaking at our YPAI event at Lolita

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Athens Boys Choir performing at our YPAI event

In March, I was fortunate enough to attend two of my favorite opportunities that I had the entire year. First was the Amnesty International Secret Policeman Ball. A night of comedy and music to bring attention to the organization and some of the current urgent human rights abuses that were going on at that time. Radio City filled up with the help of a wide range of celebrities such as Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, just to name a few.

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Alex and I front row for Amnesty’s Secret Policeman Ball

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Cold Play performing

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Me, Steph, Emily, and Alex outside the event

A week later I was in Lincoln Center for three of the most inspiring days of my life as I covered the Women In The World Summit for Girls Who Rock. Jam packed with individuals who have been through the unimaginable and accomplished the incredible, I learned so much and never felt so motivated to keep working toward creating change. The summit ended with a speech by one of my favorite people, Hillary Clinton.

Tina Brown, Merryl Streep, Hillary Clinton

Tina Brown, Merryl Streep, Hillary Clinton

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Girls Who Rock Team

I ended March seeing Nick Kristof speak, which unfortunately I have no photos of, but you can read more here. April was filled with visitors. Both Jon’s family and mine made trips into the city along with college friends and a couple of guys from Germany. I began May with a trip to Ohio to spend my birthday in Athens, my favorite place in the world, and for our friends Mike and Mariah’s wedding. As I came back, my sister made a big move from NYC to Florida. Finally, it was time for the Girls Who Rock concert. As a digital engagement officer (the Twitter account was named most influential by Internet Week NY) for Girls Who Rock I had been helping plan and promote this event which would raise money for She’s The First to send girls to school at Shanti Bhavan in India.

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The performers and Girls Who Rock team after the concert at Gramercy

In June I found out I was accepted to take on a huge life goal of mine and travel to Ghana with The Humanity Exchange to work summer camps at multiple schools in the Western Region. The next month was filled with organizing paperwork and getting shots in preparation. The experience was as life changing and amazing as anyone could expect. If i begin talking about it I will never stop, so if you want to hear more you can see what I wrote during my time with these amazing kids.

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The rest of summer included playing kickball with She’s The First, holding a rooftop happy hour for Young Professionals of Amnesty International where we took action on the Arms Trade Treaty, speaking at the Amnesty office about conflict minerals in the Congo and other solutions to Kony 2012, and moving. After 2 subleases and squeezing 4 people into a 3 bedroom in Williamsburg, Jon and I finally signed a lease for the first apartment that was actually ours in Astoria, Queens. We also celebrated our 3 year anniversary on July 1st. As fall came around, we joined the Ohio University alums for a cruise on the Hudson River. I went on my first ever business trip for work to Greensboro, NC to represent Blue Outdoor at the Tanger Outlets Conference. Finally, I was made of honor in my best friend Rachel’s wedding.

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The bridal party

After spending the summer reading Half The Sky by Nick Kristof, the documentary was finally airing on PBS. I anxiously went to a few screenings ahead of time of course, one which included Nick, Sheryl WuDunn, and Olivia Wilde as speakers. I also spent a Saturday volunteering at the Global Citizens Festival, a massive concert in Central Park put on by the Global Poverty Project to raise money for some of the poorest areas of the world.

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Central Park Global Citizens Festival

At the end of October we made it through Hurricane Sandy only losing cable and internet, extremely fortunate compared to others in the NYC area. We walked outside to find our neighborhood damaged, but overall everyone in Astoria seemed to stay safe.

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Day after Hurricane Sandy in Astoria, Queens

I accepted a volunteer position as a Researcher for She’s The First for their schools in Uganda and South Sudan which I cannot wait to get started on! After much excitement and drama over the past year, we watched anxiously until 2 a.m. for Obama to win the election. Well, some of us made it the whole time anyways.

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Jon, Jacquie, and Chris on election night

We celebrated Thanksgiving with my parents coming to our apartment in the city. We held our final event of the year as the Young Professionals of Amnesty International on Guantanamo and stopping NDAA (which Obama recently passed unfortunately). The holiday season brought a delicious work dinner and bowling party, Lion King on Broadway for a night of fun with a few coworkers, and a trip to Ohio to celebrate Christmas, Jon’s birthday, and the New Year with friends and family.

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Eric, Erin, Jon, me, Rachel, Josh

This year brought so much inspiration, love, accomplishments, and learning. It flew by faster than I could ever imagine. So what will 2013 bring for me? So far I have resolutions including eating healthier and joining a gym (pretty normal). I’m also hoping to write more, maybe take the GRE and consider grad school more closely, narrow down a focus of what issues in the world I’d like to focus most on changing, get started with my role in She’s The First, try new things, and find some me time to relax. As most people are, I’m often hard on myself for not doing enough. But thanks to this blog, for me, I was able to see all of the things I did accomplish this year, and they were pretty awesome. Here’s to a positive and even more fun filled 2013!

Day 2 of Women in The World

Continuing off of my last post regarding my time at the Women In The World Summit, I wanted to keep pulling in memories and points from my live tweeting. The summit itself made me realize that nothing is impossible. Here I am in New York City, coming here from a very small town. But none of that matters. Some positions seemed forever out of reach when I was growing up, but I’ve come to think more along the lines now of “why not me?”. Why can’t I be the one to do something? There is no reason. Of course it comes with a lot of hard work, and there are people out there who already start off miles ahead of you if they have the right background? But the support system I’ve developed while volunteering in this city makes me believe that I could be the one making a difference someday. This conference in particular made me think hard of what I want to do. I love writing, and I love learning about the world and how to make the biggest positive impact to give people a better life. All people. As of right now, after listening to Nancy Pelosi, Madeleine K. Albright and Hillary Clinton, I think I would love to study international relations/foreign policy in graduate school and go on to write policy in the U.S. for foreign affairs. Eventually I would also like to go into Academia and teach at a college level to continue my research, travel, and motivate future generations. Here is a continuation from the last post that got me thinking more along these lines.

More inspiring women speak at Women In The World

First of all, especially with the upcoming election even here in the United States, voting is extremely important. One point was brought up that “bad things happen when good people don’t vote”. Regarding women, this is even more important today when we are trying and close to getting more women into office, and also to stay fair on the issues up for debate that affect women especially. It’s important to stand together. I’ve never been one to be a strong feminist, but at the same time there are situations that just make sense. Women, not always, but overall tend to be a bit more sensitive and better at listening. These two characteristics are very important in trying to make a better world for everyone and not strive for power. But it’s not easy. “In our generation now we’re told there’s no longer barriers (being a woman) so when we hit them we think it’s our fault,” said Shelby Knox. The media often makes it appear that gender equality has been achieved, but in most cases that’s not true. Another issue is that women are often the toughest critics of other women, including those running for office. Instead of being supportive, there is this tendency to pull them apart, and without that support there’s no chance of taking steps forward. Jane Harman mentioned traits that women have off the resume that are important for leadership positions: instinct to protect, and trying to resolve problems.

I found many other points made by Jane Harman particularly interesting. She also reminded the audience that the areas with the most violence also has the most victims, who need help and not more harm. Therefore, it’s not best to attack a neighborhood, but to actually find the people causing the problems. This can be best done with the help of the victims since they are likely to cooperate, instead of angering them by upsetting their lives even further. “We must build trust with communities or you won’t know. They won’t help you find 1 bad apple,” Harman said.  She then mentioned the importance of women in building up communities. “If you have a secure woman you have a secure child, a secure family, a secure society.”

Another panel spoke on Afghanistan being the most dangerous place to be a woman. A solution that came up, which I always found to be an important avenue to follow, is focusing on the men. Women already know that they don’t want violence against them, rape, or to be less than any man. Therefore, the energy for change should be focused on teaching men and boys from the start to respect women since ultimately, in circumstances where these occurrences are common, can be diminished from the beginning.

As a panel opened up on murder and machismo in Latin America, another strong and incredible young woman told her story as she was personally effected by sex trafficking and child prostitution in Mexico. This issue is still extremely common today both in Mexico and across into the United States border. See my earlier post on solutions from a speaker at the Amnesty International Office.

Another favorite session of mine was with Nancy Pelosi, a person I have always admired. Her focus began with the recent debate of women’s reproductive rights. I found an important point she made of remembering that being a woman is not a pre-existing condition, and should not be treated as that. Which is why it makes sense for health coverage to include areas needed for the health of a woman. Valerie Jarrett later spoke at the summit bringing up the issues again in regards to her work with President Obama saying that he “was always surrounded by women and values them having a seat at the table.”

After much serious discussion on some very heavy issues, the summit moved to a lighter note with the Soccket Rocket. This was invented by two women. It is a soccer ball that harnesses kinetic energy while being played with. The energy is then used later to power a light in communities that don’t have electricity and use kerosene lamps which cause many health problems. Now that is innovative!

Soccket Rocket

Day 2 wrapped up with Lynsey Addario speaking of her photojournalism in Libya and being captured by rebels. A job of tremendous courage that I can hardly comprehend as I sat there in amazement of what she had faced to tell their story. It looks like she has no plans of stopping anytime soon. Charlie Rose even asked her “You now have a 10 week old baby, are you going to keep doing this?” To which she responded, “would you ask a man that question?” Going into the Arab spring, an uplifting quote came up to end the day. “There is no spring without flowers, there is no Arab Spring without women.” And with that, Anna Netrebko left us with her amazing voice, and we left anxious for the final day of the summit.

“There’s A Special Place in Hell for Women Who Don’t Help Each Other”-Madeleine K. Albright

The Girls Who Rock Team attends the Women In The World summit

The Girls Who Rock Team attends the Women In The World summit

Just a fair warning that this blog is probably going to be longer than a blog post is really supposed to be. However, after attending the 3 day Women In The World Summit, I can’t help but want to remember every moment and all of the inspired ideas and thoughts that I had throughout. This is going to be my documentation of it, but I promise everyt person and everything that happened at the summit is worth reading and learning about. Forgive me if my thoughts seem scattered, I’m trying to collect them through many many tweets. The whole reason I was there was because the Girls Who Rock team was invited, and throughout the whole event I was live tweeting for them (@girlswhorockny). It was an amazing experience! (When I wrote this I didn’t realize just how long it would be, so I have decided to break the summit down by day, this is day 1).

Friday, March 8th

The summit started out with Suma, an indentured servant from Nepal  who was forced into work by her parents where she was treated as a slave and abused daily. She was a beautiful and strong young woman who came to sing her song to help those still suffering this treatment which is common among girls in Nepal after being sent by their own parents.

From there, the evening went into a panel on forced marriages, specifically in Europe. There is an organization there currently called the Forced Marriage Unit that girls can call if they suspect their parents will be taking them away to be married soon. The Forced Marriage Unit then tells the girls to put a metal spoon in their underwear so that when they go through airport security as their parents take them out of the country, they’ll set the alarm off. From there they will be taken into a private room and be given a chance to talk to someone one on one.  However, as Lesley Stahl continued on with the panel, the horror does not end there. Most girls who do speak out against their forced marriage are then turned against by their parents. One woman on the panel, Jasvender Sanghera, hadn’t had contact with their families for decades. It is not uncommon for the cases to be even more extreme than that. Fathers will threaten suicide or divorce of the mother, abuse, or even murder. One woman on the panel had a sister who was constantly abused and raped by her husband she was forced to marry. At age 24 she went to her mother for help, but she refused saying if the woman did anything to ruin the marriage she would be a disgrace to the family. Shortly after, the young woman killed herself by setting herself on fire. The mother refused to let anyone in their family attend the funeral or speak of the young woman or her death again because she had dishonored the family. Stories like this have even come out of the United States. There was a case in Arizona where a mother burned her daughter’s face for refusing an arranged marriage. The awful connection these stories all have, no matter what country they come out of, are that the mothers and grandmothers are often the most brutal and show no remorse on the violence they afflict onto their daughters even if they end up in court for murder. How can a mother feel that way toward their own daughter? There have been 3000 cases of forced marriage in the United States in the past 2 years, but many many more that remain hidden.

Next up was a woman who I have admired for many many years. Madeleine K. Albright was interviewed by Charlie Rose. It was amazing to hear her life story and how she brought it with her into her career firsthand, and inspiring as she made it seem that any person no matter what background you have can have enormous success. She recalled her family who had passed away in concentration camps, which she only found out recently, and her personal experience in the Cold War as a child. “You have to remember those who perished to make a better life,” she said.  She then related the Holocaust in Germany to the current situation in Syria today commenting on how people back in World War II claimed that they didn’t know what was happening in Germany, though she doesn’t buy that, but today we know everything that goes on everywhere and we have a responsibility to protect (R2P). Then the question I think is on many minds today was voiced-how many people have to die in Syria before we can intervene? It’s a thin line right now to a huge regret remembered for all of history such as what happened with Rwanda.  Switching gears, Madeleine Albright began speaking about women in power and how there aren’t enough currently because if there was it would make a huge difference. “Some say there arent enough qualified women, thats the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard,” she said. Then she gave a quote that would highlight throughout the rest of the summit: “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Friday March 8, 2012 at Women in the World Summit

Sandra Uwiringyimana, an 18 year old Congolese woman, told her experience of surviving the genocide in 2004 at age 10. From my past experience working on projects for positive change in Democratic Republic of Congo, it was heartbreaking to hear her story as she spoke of her family fleeing Congo to Burundi and witnessing the massacre that occurred along the way. “Justice needs to be fought for and it can come from anyone, even a teenager like myself,” she said. She now follows her passion of photography and uses it to tell the story of the children she was with during the massacre and what their lives are like now. Hearing her choke up recalling the people she knew and her family, I couldn’t stop the tears streaming down my own face. She was so strong and beautiful, and so young to have seen so much.

To end the evening, Angelina Jolie told the story of a Somali woman. Dr. Hawa Abdi has stood as a strong woman throughout tragedy in Somalia. She has a camp that provides medical help and shelter to refugees and those who were suffering from the famine. However, once international NGOs started setting up camps as well they started paying locals more to work for them, and she began losing her employees. Finally, she had to give them a raise to stay, which took away most of her funds she had for the 2012 year, another example of the western world doing way more harm than good through poorly thought out aid plans. As the drought ended, a great rain occurred which then left most of the people sick with pneumonia. As if any of this weren’t bad enough, women often were raped by rebels if the wandered away from the camp at all. One day the rebels came and took all of the children from the camp. Once they were brought back the children said they were actually taken to a celebration, where they also met members of Al Queda. Now the rebels are wanting to take away areas of the camp to use for their own. Dr. Abdi took them to court, but since even law enforcement are terrified of the rebels, she lost. Now 400 people are being forced out of their shelter at the camp. They were given 5 days to leave with nowhere to go, and that 5th day was Friday March 9th. The only good news coming from this situation is that Dr. Hawa Abdi has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Price. I can not think of anyone who could possibly deserve it more.