Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee On Women and War

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There was a time in history when only soldiers — and only men — died in wars. But today, the battlefields have no boundaries, and women and children have become the targets of wars and armed conflicts around the world — but this does not mean they are victims.

That is the message that recently crowned Nobel Laureate Leyman Gbowee is bringing to the world, and to the United States, as she is currently here to promote the independent documentary Pray the Devil to Hell, which tells the story of the grassroots peace revolution Gbowee ignited in Liberia in 2002, which resulted in the end of the decades-long civil war there, and ultimately, the ouster of dictator Charles Taylor. Her method was simple: gather up women, both Christian and Muslim, all wearing white t-shirts, sitting at the fish market with a sign that said "Liberian Women Demand Peace Now." This led to a huge movement, a meeting with then-president Charles Taylor, and Taylor's eventual ouster and the end of the civil war. (Gbowee was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize along with her fellow countryman Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, now running for her second term as Liberia's president, and Tawakkul Karman, a Yemen citizen who played a pivotal role in the 2011 Yemeni uprising).

"In all of the madness of militarism, communities are still going on, people are still finding food, babies are still being born — and there are no hospitals. So you can't call this community of women victims! Because we survived 14 years of war, we never went to the psychiatrist, we didn't have social security benefits, no insurance policies. I have never been to a counselor since the war and I still make coherent speeches. Is that the life of a victim?" said Gbowee at a small press gathering in Manhattan today, making a powerful point about the ways in which women and mothers are the backbone of rebuilding society in war-torn countries.

Nobel Peace Laureate Leyhmah Gbowee


But these stories of women's strength in conflict zones have often gone untold. As one of the film's three filmmakers, Abigail Disney, put it, "I went to Liberia in 2006, and that's when I first heard about this story [of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace]. I couldn't believe I'd never heard about this story! And frankly, I was a little pissed off."

But the three filmmakers — Disney, Gini Reticker and Pamela Hogan — took that reaction and turned it into an investigation, unearthing the untold stories of women in war and conflict around the world. This led to Pray The Devil Back to Hell's being turned into a watershed five-part series, called Women, War and Peace, currently airing on PBS, that tells the stories of women's roles in redefining peace in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Colombia. (Pray The Devil Back to Hell airs Tuesday night, October 16; click here for the other scheduled air dates.)

Although Pray the Devil Back to Hell is airing in the United States for the first time, the film has already been seen in every continent and in 60 countries, and is influencing how women, war and peace are seen around the world — and is helping grassroots groups organize and change how governments respond to, and think about, women and war. (It was played at Davos recently, the annual meeting of the influential World Economic Forum.)

"None of these stories has ever made the big screen," said Gbowee. "And I have to make a statement: I would not be a Nobel Laureate today without Pray the Devil Back to Hell, because the story had been erased, had it not been for these three women bringing the story to the forefront." But the most important impact of the film, says Gbowee, is that "people have gotten very afraid of women's nonviolent protests. They were not paying attention before, and saw women as toothless bulldogs. Today we see that Jeni Williams [of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, aka Woza] and other women in Zimbabwe are arrested as soon as they step out. Now the governments say, "I believe that these toothless bulldogs have some power so if we don't stop what they're doing, we're going to get in trouble."

That's the downside, says Gbowee. But the upside is "There is now a global conversation taking place that says there is no way that peace can be negotiated without women. We are starting to understand that we cannot move from conflict to peace without the roles, the ideas, the unique skills, and the capacities of women at the table. So there's that on the global record, so now people, governments, are saying 'How we can make the [protections of] UN Security Council resolution 1345 a reality?' Resolution 1325 names the importance of securing women and children in conflict in order to stabilize communities at war, and also states the importance of involving them at every level of conflict resolution and reconciliation, and last, but certainly not least, states the importance of protecting women and girls from the many forms of gender-based violence that are now used as weapons of war. In fact, the women featured in the Bosnian episode of 'Women, War and Peace' are responsible for going on record about the mass rapes that took place during that conflict, and effectively changing the legal status of methodical rape in wartime from a war crime to a crime against humanity."

Says filmmaker Pamela Hogan, "Women and children may be disproportionately targeted in war, but now they're emerging as peace makers, as leaders in the quest for justice as extraordinary change agents, not just the targets of war." That's the story that Gbowee lived and brings so passionately to life in her continuing work in her country and around the world, advising women and grassroots organizations how to peaceably protest for peace.

Gbowee's life has changed little since being named a Peace Laureate, although she joked that she's worn a suit once or twice because of it — and immediately noted that no one should get used to that, as she is always robed in traditional African dress, for a reason. "How can I relate to those girls in the villages if I have this air of a Laureate? My dress is a reminder of where I come from, of the continent I represent, the constituents of women I represent, their priorities and their concerns. I need to stay down here," she says, motioning low with her hand. "And this is also a reminder that there are communities of young people here in America, in this country, who need to hear my message, too. And I can only get to them if I'm down here."

In the end, Gbowee's message is one of dignity, of standing in the face of unimaginable horror, and not letting the fear take over, of knowing that small actions and firm, proud beliefs can topple the giants, because justice is on our side. As one of the women in Pray The Devil Back to Hell says, in a stunning pronouncement, "If I should get killed, just remember, I was fighting for peace."

It's impossible not to hear these stories and wonder what we American women could do, if we could dare a little discomfort, if we could step outside our daily lives, to demand that our government respond to the needs of women and children, and finally set aside the destructive political tactics that take up all the government's energy (and the media's focus), and instead focus on peace, education, building streets, serving their communities, not those who fund their careers and stoke their fame.

So watch this movie — no, this entire series — with your daughter, or your friends, or your church or your entire community. It will remind you the powers we women posses, the strength that comes from being mothers, and wanting to change the future for our children. Hogan says that this century is going to be about how women can change the dialogues surrounding conflict and governments. And Abigail Disney puts it this way: "I hope that this film shows us what it is that we're all capable of, if we just find the courage. We're hoping that Americans come to understand themselves in a similar way and come to ask themselves, 'What can I do to build a culture of peace in this country?'"

It's a great question. And one I'd wager matters more to this country — even if we aren't stepping over dead bodies in the street as Gbowee did for 17 years — than we could possibly imagine.


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