Leymah Gbowee was 17 years old when the First Liberian Civil War broke out in 1989.
Now a mother of four children, Gbowee led women in nonviolent protests to facilitate a ceasefire, intervention forces and negotiations between the government and insurgents. She received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.
In the interview below, she talks about how the civil war impacted her life and set her on a path to becoming a peacemaker. (Learn more about Gbowee through her oral history with Georgetown University.)
You were only 17 years old when the first civil war in Liberia began. What impact did the civil war have on you?
Leymah Gbowee: I had a grounded childhood—a childhood that taught me to not to look at the difference but to embrace everyone. [My parents] always said to us, “Look at your five fingers, they are not all equal, but they all live on the hand together in harmony and they need each other.”
When the war came with all of the rhetoric about division and ethnic groups, it did not just shake my world, it shattered parts of the foundation of my upbringing.
Then, as a young person trying to wrap the displacement, wrap the death of childhood friends, wrap the persistent hunger and the fear, and all of the negativity that was happening, I was also trying to make sense of the double standards of my socialization. And then the anger seeped in, and for many years I carried that anger with me.
You managed to transform your anger and focus on healing. How did your interest in trauma healing evolve?
Gbowee: There was this thing about the wounded healer being the best healer, and so I was like, how do I heal people? When I haven’t even found my way?
Emotional and psychological trauma is like physical trauma, they say. One example that stuck with me was when someone said, “When [you’ve gone through] a period of trauma, you have a scar on your mind, on your heart, on your soul, just as if you had a physical trauma. It heals, but the scar never goes away.”
And so I think it was that understanding of trauma that drew me to it, that I want to let people know this: that you can pass that stage, that scar can be there, but you can live and work.
How did you become involved with women peacebuilders in Liberia?
Leymah Gbowee: We did not have a gender focus [at The Lucian Church Trauma Healing program] … So I went back to my bosses and said, “Let’s do something for women only.”
There was a security project, so we decided we’d do the security women project, so we brought them together.
You led women in nonviolent protests to facilitate peace deal during the war. Tell us some of the highlights of the protests and the eventual outcome?
Gbowee: We started picketing, then we started going to parliament to do letters. We used to be the sore eye to the American Embassy and the E.U., because we were there like three times in a week.
The ultimate goal was to meet with President Taylor and present our statement, and eventually we did. As God would have it, they asked all of the delegates to go into a room to make an announcement. It wasn’t like they were going in to talk, they were going to just give an announcement and leave. At that point, when the women arrived, we sat, locked arms.
They said, “we’re going to arrest you.” I said, “What? I’m going to make it very easy for you all, I’ll strip naked, for you to arrest me.”
I was saying to those men, “We’ve had it. I have had it, and for the rest of my life, I want you to know that I am doing this in protest of the treatment of the women and children of Liberia.”
When the peace agreement was signed, we went back to Liberia, but we did not celebrate, because we looked at [an] almost 300 page document and wondered how many grassroots women could actually read it. So we had a consultative meeting of over 80 women leaders from all over the country, where we took the peace agreement and broke it down, setting benchmarks for the grassroots and rural women. We did not stop until Ellen Sirleaf was democratically elected.
You won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for your work. What was the significance of receiving the prize?
Gbowee: You know, I did what I had to do, at a time that was necessary. I wasn’t looking for any accolades. I would do it again, even if there wasn’t a Nobel Peace Prize.
I feel the prize validated the work of grassroots women everywhere. My prize, the one that has my name on it, was a validation for women in Liberia, women in the Congo, women in Central African Republic, and women in Sierra Leone. Those unknown women at the community level, who are facing men for domestic abuse, who are chastising the justice structure in their local community. That prize, that has my name on it, says we recognize the role of grassroots, rural, community women as nurturers and sustainers of their society.