When Women Stand Together As One: The Power of Women's Grassroots Peace Movements
Violent conflicts remain the single most deadly social phenomenon and impediment to development in Africa. In the last two and a half decades, over 4 million people have been killed in violent conflicts in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, Angola, Sudan, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire. Several other states including Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Cameroon, Niger, Guinea Bissau, and The Gambia are also paying the high price of violence. As in my home country of Liberia, many of these conflicts stem from a politics of exclusion and the failure to meet people’s basic human security needs.
The severity and recurrence of these violent conflicts and unconventional wars vary from genocide to small-scale ethnic and communal clashes. The result is a region faced with grave but diverse security challenges, and populations burdened by illicit trafficking in drugs and weapons; displacement; food crises; disease; recruitment of child soldiers; youth unemployment; rape; and environmental damage. The nature of these vectors of violence, and the fact that they often take place in the bush, close to rural communities, exposes local populations to violence far from the eye or protection of the state. Fighters frequently disregard humanitarian and human rights laws, and the intricate, multi-faceted, and multi-party character of these conflicts makes it impossible for state actors alone to prevent, manage, or resolve them. What we need is a broad and inclusive strategy that draws on the involvement of, and partnership with, non-state actors.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were many efforts to put an end to the violent conflicts across the African continent. Almost all such attempts at conflict resolution left out the critical voices and presence of women. These male-dominated spaces reinforced the pre-war exclusion of women, despite the subsequent impact of the conflicts on their lives. The humanitarian needs, interests, and concerns of women were never addressed in post-war agreements and structures. Similarly, the concerns for their families and those of the communities that women are socialized to support were overlooked. The legacy of these exclusionary projects persists today.
I come from the relatively small country of Liberia in West Africa. Liberia has become somewhat synonymous with war. The nation was embroiled in one of the world’s worst civil wars for 14 years, from 1989 to 2003. The effect of the conflict on the livelihoods of women is hard to overstate. During the civil war approximately 250,000 people were killed, one million internally displaced, and 500,000 forced to flee to refugee camps. My own family sought refuge in Ghana. The conflict left the country in economic ruin, a legacy of not enough jobs and too many guns.
Throughout this period women and women’s groups tried to make their voices heard in promoting peace. Unfortunately, the parties to the conflict and the international community made no provisions for women’s involvement in the peace process. Little thought was given to the role of women. They were perceived as marginal actors. It was assumed that women had no influence or power, and they were not considered credible. Women in Liberia begged to differ, deciding they did not need the permission of the men or the international community to organize.
The civil war in Liberia is split into two chapters. The first war took place from 1989 to 1997, whereby elections in 1997 saw Charles Taylor elected President. The second war started in 1999 and ended in 2003. In the pre-Taylor era, from 1991 to 1997, women’s groups and organizations were heavily engaged in shuttle diplomacy. The main focus of their efforts was to travel between the Mano River countries in the west of Liberia, close to Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea, advocating with their political leadership in order to find a solution to the Liberian crisis. The Mano River Women Peace Network (MARWOPNET) played a critical role in advocating for the cease-fire that subsequently led to the 1997 presidential elections.
The relative calm that followed ended within two years, when Taylor’s government abandoned a program of reconciliation, and high-level corruption and gross human rights violations continued unaddressed. In 1999, renewed fighting erupted in northern Liberia, and soon spread to other parts of the country. In this period Liberia saw an increase in violence toward civilians. A new rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), used civilians, specifically women and children, as shields from the military offensives of Taylor’s army. In 2003, as the conflict intensified, another rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), began attacking government positions from the country’s southeast. Attacking camps sheltering those who were displaced became a key war tactic used by all parties to the conflict.
Women from all levels of society—the displaced camps, churches, and mosques, including marketers, school teachers, workers, and housewives—once again mobilized to make their voices heard. The war had caused massive displacement for Liberians, with some communities having been displaced more than seven times. Families had been separated, women widowed, children orphaned. To this day, many families are still searching for their children, wives, mothers, fathers, husbands, and other family members.
In the face of this violence, women collectively agreed, at a meeting of local actors, that sustained actions needed to be taken to alert the world to the plight of Liberians, and particularly that of women and children.
Many discounted the campaign as a fruitless venture and wild goose chase. The women were called “toothless bulldogs,” among other derogatory names. We were not deterred, but rather emboldened in a quest for lasting and sustainable peace. Without academic or theoretical knowledge of non-violence as a political tactic, the women of Liberia nonetheless deployed it en masse, guided by an unyielding determination to achieve peace.
Our first goal was to change the global narrative about the war in Liberia. There was significant global coverage, but we wanted to catalyze a shift, away from romanticized stories of the violence towards human stories, raw and real. Rather than allowing the narrative to focus on drugged up soldiers, we put our own bodies out in public spaces for the world to see.
Our second goal was to press the government to agree to a ceasefire, the deployment of an intervention force, and a negotiated settlement. President Taylor firmly opposed these three items. But in the face of daily, non-violent mass protests led by women, he finally conceded and agreed to meet with representatives of women’s movements and listen to our demands. Our mass action had a direct impact on President Taylor’s agreement to participate in the peace talks.
Liberia’s war years were filled with unsuccessful peace talks and agreements that did not hold. The strategy we took was different. Our movement decided that to be successful, women had to claim space at the peace talks, rather than wait for it to be offered. To that end we would continue our strategy of daily, nonviolent sit-ins and backchannel mediation. We mobilized Liberian women who were refugees in Ghana, and together with key women still in Liberia, joined forces to ensure that the challenges and stories civilians were experiencing every day continued to be shared with warring parties, international representatives, and the global media for as long as the peace talks were ongoing. The initial budget with which to activate this campaign was less than $5,000. We did not know how long the talks would last and the level of logistics required to sustain such a campaign, but we were determined to ensure that the voices of women would be heard and influence the outcome of the talks.
The difference in our approach extended beyond tactics and influenced what we viewed as essential points for negotiation during the peace process. Rather than bargaining over who would play which role in an interim government, we focused on the human toll of the conflict and put pressure on the parties to stop the violence. And rather than maintaining the process as a high-level political dialogue, we made sure there were avenues for community input. We wrote daily letters to the Chief Mediator on the situation in Liberia, in which we listed the death tolls in small communities as reported by our colleagues and family members at home. The letters also provided our take on how we thought the talks were progressing. We built alliances with members of foreign delegations, and maintained a daily presence at the actual site of the peace talks. Above all, we maintained a commitment to never support any political or warring group. We each had our separate political opinions about how the process should unfold, but we ensured that we spoke with one voice: our politics at the talks were a politics of peace, and our goal was to end the suffering of Liberians.
After three months of intense and consistent advocacy, a peace agreement was finally signed. Just as we had insisted on our place at the table in creating peace, so too we took on the responsibility of maintaining it. We determined that we would not let the agreement fail in the way that so many had before. We returned to Liberia determined to set benchmarks to monitor the progress of the agreement. The peace agreement was long and technical, written in a manner inaccessible to the vast majority of Liberians, so in communities across the country, women translated the peace agreement into tangible items that local women could keep track of. We continued our campaign of non-violent advocacy for another two years, until democratic elections were held. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president, making Liberia the first African country to elect a female head of state.
Liberians should be proud of this process, and of the relative stability that has followed since. But our story does not serve only to provide an example of feminist politics in a vacuum. There are lessons that I believe can be drawn from our movement regarding what is universal, and what is effective, about feminist political organizing in pursuit of peace around the world.
Around the time of the Liberian civil war, the decades-long conflict known as The Troubles had been raging in Northern Ireland. The cultural contexts in Liberia and Northern Ireland are vastly different, however, in both contexts the women’s peace movement was a key element to the end of the violence. The women in Northern Ireland decided to put forward women’s voices and perspectives through the creation of the Northern Ireland Women Coalition (NIWC).1
The NIWC used several tactics that were similar to the tactics we deployed in Liberia. The women of Northern Ireland sought to have a humanizing influence on the conflict affecting their community: they brought together members of each community to calm the tensions, and worked behind the scenes as mediators to deescalate state force and protestor violence during organized protests and marches. The NIWC brought together women from Protestant and Catholic communities and stood united against the violence without seeking to advocate for one side or the other. Like in Liberia, media coverage of The Troubles overemphasized violent stories, particularly when the violence involved well-known politicians, and underplayed the role of women and actors that were advocating for peace.2
The Liberian women’s movement was embedded in the local context. We used strategies and tactics that were a product of local consultations, and that made sense to the people for whom it was meant to be of service. But even though as it was traditional in its tactics, and even though many of its leaders were unaware of feminist movements in the West, our movement shared many characteristics with parallel international processes. Despite very different social, economic, and political contexts, the women’s peace movements in Liberia and Northern Ireland achieved success because they were both embedded in the experiences and priorities of women. Both of these movements are feminist movements. The key to the success of their work was the contextualization of their tactics. Each movement knew their communities and what would and would not move the needle in that specific context. Conflict resolution, and specifically feminist conflict resolution, is not a “one size fits all” approach. Rather, feminist organizing for peace is at its most effective when it is a grassroots effort led by local women.
Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist and trained social worker. In 2011 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work leading the women’s peace movement that is credited with ending the Liberian civil war. Gbowee is currently the Executive Director of the Women, Peace, and Security Program at Columbia University and she continues to be actively involved in peacebuilding and education through her foundation, Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. Her story is documented in her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers and in the documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
1 Monica McWilliams, “Struggling for Peace and Justice: Reflections on Women’s Activism in Northern Ireland,” Journal of Women’s History 6, no. 4 (1995), 13-39.