Liberia's Leymah Gwobee, one of this year's three Nobel Peace Prize winners, is not as well known as Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
A good interview with Gwobee appeared on PRI's The World in September. Gbowee talked with Lisa Mullins about counseling former child soldiers, the work in Liberia for women’s rights and about her new memoir “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex changed a Nation at War.”
Lisa Mullins: Military leaders from 6 West African nations convened in Liberia this week. They were there to talk about how to keep violence from marring next month’s Liberian elections. Successive civil wars have rocked Liberia in recent decades, but a fragile peace has held for the past 8 years. Key to rebuilding Liberia now are efforts to heal the country’s psychological wounds. Liberian author and peace activist Leymah Gbowee knows these wounds well. She counsels the victims of terror and its perpetrators including child soldiers.
Leymah Gbowee: I often say to young people and to women as we do the work that being non-violent is not being a coward. It’s one of the most powerful tools because even those who pick up guns are cowards. For, for you to be able to stand in front of the one who raped, abused and murdered some of your family members and speak truth to them, that’s the most powerful tool.
Q: Now, when you were dealing with some of the child soldiers… ex-child soldiers…who had fought for Charles Taylor and under Charles Taylor, you explained in some great detail about what it was like, your own struggles, to deal with these young men who took pride in, as they put it, being evil, who would threaten you; who would brag about having raped so many women as they were child soldiers. How did you deal with these young men yourself?
Gbowee: Initially, when I started working with the Lutheran Church Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program, I was their case worker. As I worked with these boys, the first, second week, third week, I got to know their stories and within a month or two months it dawned on me that, first, these were also victims. Just as I was a 17 year old and had to look after siblings that were 10, 8 and 9 during the conflict, these boys were 8 and 9 like my siblings but unfortunately for them they didn’t have a 17 year old sibling to look after them and they fell in the wrong hands. When I listened to their story, working with my own trauma, coming to understand where they found themselves, there were times when they came from that space of being the top fighters – you saw the child in them. And so, I got to understand that these are vulnerable people. These are a group of individuals who are looking for direction; in most instances, looking for love.
Q: So you can see the child in them, but there is still a lot to deal with in them as child soldiers?
Gbowee: Definitely, but also I will just cite an example. There’s this one child soldier that I continue to have a relationship with…I have a relationship with a lot of them, even ’til today, but this one really because we are from the same ethnic group. We were having a conversation about rape and he said to me, he says, “Leymah, why do you people talk about rape, rape, rape. I didn’t rape anyone.” I said, “Did you force anyone to have sex?” He said, “But, it’s not rape. Isn’t that what women were made for?” I said to myself, seriously, this is the child in this boy coming out because he’s being socialized to believe from his earlier stage, living in a village with a mother and a father and seeing his mother having children every year – the first thing that comes to his mind is that women were made to have babies and, regardless, the process of having sex is what they were made to do.
Q: Well, where do you go from there? You know, what’s the way out?
Gbowee: I think the way out now is to already start a conversation with young people – young boys, young girls. If you went into a tiny community and asked a little girl if she wanted to be a peace activist, maybe you’d find one person who’d tell you yes. Who wants to be a supermodel or who wants to be the next xyz musician? The answer would be more than 100 young people because the media has portrayed big boobs, small waists, big backsides as the in-thing. So, boys growing up now don’t see brains, all they see is bodies. Girls growing up now, a lot of them, all they think is about beauty. So, I think we who call ourselves activists really need to make a conscious effort to engage with young women. Make them to understand the value of working, the value of using your brain, the value of other things other than beauty. Yes, beauty is good. I woke up this morning and I think I look good. I don’t have to show my boobs and my backside to feel like I look good.
Q: I wonder as you look now at what’s been transpiring over almost the past year in Africa, and that is the Arab Spring; I wonder what your feelings are in terms of where Liberia stands these days. I mean, Liberia has been at peace for about 8 years now. The revolution there came in a quite different way from what we are seeing in the Arab Spring countries. What are your feelings about them?
Gbowee: Well, what I am hoping to see as part of the Arab Spring is also the Spring of the women within the Arab Spring, to ensure that their issues are taken. Having said that, I think, in little ways in Liberia now, when it comes to the rights of women, we’re seeing them do some of the same things that they do. Two days ago, some of the women in one of our government ministries were insulted by the minister because they went to seek clarification for something. In the old days, those women would have gone back and sat down, “He’s the boss, whatever.” They disrupted the work and said there’s gonna be no work in that particular government ministry until the minister do a public apology to them for the verbal abuse he uttered against them. So, you see it happening in little spaces especially as it relates to young people.
Mullins: Liberian women rights activist, Leymah Gbowee. Her new memoir is called “Mighty Be Our Powers.”