I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend the whole program of this year’s Women In The World Summit. For three days, I heard the amazing stories of each speaker, host, and panel. The panels that I remembered the most were the strong and beautiful women who shared their personal firsthand encounters with human rights abuses around the world. These women had so much strength to rise up from such unfortunate situations, ranging from genocide in the Congo, forced marriage in the UK, sex trafficking in Latin America, and solitary confinement for speaking up for democracy in Burma. It’s amazing what a woman can face and rise above, not only to keep living, but to make a change.
Leymah Gbowee is a prime example of this strength and courage. After witnessing killings and human rights atrocities during the 14 year war in Liberia, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end it. And one of her most amazing traits is how she does it all with a great sense of humor.
At the Women In The World Summit, Gbowee shared her story. She saw her family and friends from her home community raped and murdered. Herself and the other women felt fear, and that fear eventually turned to anger. Gbowee went a step beyond that though and transformed that anger into power. “If we continue to engage from a position of weakness they will never respect us,” she said. She used it to stand up and do something. She began to organize the other women. Each day they would sit in an open soccer field hoping to attract the attention of the media so people could see the other side of the war, that it wasn’t just about weapons and violence. Along with this protest, she also organized the women to start a sex strike, where they withheld sex to show their opposition to the war. Finally, after 14 years, Charles Taylor fell from power in Liberia and the war came to an end. Today he is wanted to be tried for war crimes, not in Liberia, but for the hand he had in the atrocities of Sierra Leone.
Of course, just because there was an end to the war did not mean there was an end to all the problems. Even today, Liberia faces many hardships such as one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world, and a high rate of teenage mothers. “Girls have the desire to go to university in Africa, but many don’t have the hand,” she said during the panel. Gbowee continues her work today of organizing women, but this time they are holding a different kind of sit in. They gather to speak about what they witnessed, telling their stories in order to reconcile and move on. With the war being over, it means that everyone is returning home, including the killers who are back in the communities living among the loved ones of those they have killed. Gbowee still stands strong to help Liberia to grow as a better place for future generations. “Peace is still fragile, we need to nurture it,” she said regarding the long road ahead for her country.
Gbowee even calls upon women outside of Liberia to take a stand and start demanding change, even here in the United States. As she recalls one of her many protests, she envisions how it could be done in the U.S. saying “imagine taking over the capital building–Americans should do that given the state of your nation,” during her appearance with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. She kept up the same energy for American women at the Women In The World summit touching on the current debate on reproductive rights. “I watch CNN and think, where are all the angry American women? Stop being politely angry!” It seems she knows how to motivate and energize women anywhere, and her humor moves each of us even further to be amazed by her and want to follow her incredible lead and example.
Today you can find Gbowee speaking about her experience and empowering others at events such as the Women In The World Summit and the recent CARE National Conference for International Women’s Day. You can watch her story on her documentary Pray The Devil Back To Hell, and of course watch her inject humor into a bleak situation with appearances such as The Daily Show.
Filed under: Leymah Gbowee, Liberia, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, The Daily Show, Women of the World Summit by stephanie