“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead
The history of the world is full of turning points. Often the fate of an entire country rests upon the shoulders of one individual, on his or her choice to be a beacon of hope, an agent of change, a fighter for peace…or something quite the opposite.
Liberia in the year 2000 was one of the most brutal places on earth. In the grip of a warlord who seized power in a bloody coup, Liberians endured a six-year civil war in which human rights abuses were widespread. Government forces and rebel groups roamed the country and terrorized the population. It seemed no one could stop the madness.
Yet in 2005, Liberia held peaceful democratic elections and chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as its President, becoming the first African nation to elect a female head of state. Women took an active role in peace building and recovery.
How did such a dramatic change happen in such a short time? After decades of war, how was peace finally achieved in Liberia?
The answer begins with women who were tired of the brutality and said, “Enough is enough.”
“In 2003, fed up with the war, fed up with boy soldiers putting their hands in our underclothes searching for what they said was guns, and pistols, and reconnaissance notes… fed up with our daughters being taken away from us to warm the beds of some drug-emboldened fighter… fed up with our sons being recruited as soldiers… fed up, just fed up…a group of community women got together and decided ‘Enough is enough.’ For us, the price of sitting was becoming higher than the price of getting involved.”
— Leymah Gbowee, co-founder of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace
On April 1, 2003, Leymah Gbowee was laid up in bed with malaria. A friend called with an urgent message. The war was closing in, she said. Something had to be done.
“I had this dream,” said Gbowee, “this crazy dream. Like someone was actually telling me to get the women of the church together and pray for peace.”
Thousands of women came together to protest. For the first time in the history of Liberia, Muslim women and Christian women joined forces to pray, sing, dance and protest for peace. They put pressure on their pastors and imams to speak out against the war. They framed their goals in simple terms: peace, not politics.
The rallies grew larger. Women in white lined the streets and filled public spaces, carrying big banners that read: THE WOMEN OF LIBERIA WANT PEACE NOW.
“We went back to the Bible. We saw what Esther did for her people, that she went in sackclothes and ashes, saying, ‘I mean it.’ We wore the white, saying to people we were out for peace.”
In plain white clothes, no makeup, no jewelry, and their hair tied back, the women of Liberia held prayer vigils, organized rallies, and gathered in protest, singing songs and holding signs demanding an end to the violence.
“We stepped out first and did the unimaginable,” said Gbowee: “to send out a signal to the world that we, the Liberian women, we are tired of the killing of our people.”
News of the protests drew national and international attention. Eventually — some would say miracoulsly — the warring factions agreed to peace talks.
To ensure the negotiators and leaders would be held to their commitments, the women staged a sit-in outside the Presidential Palace where the talks were taking place. They blocked all exits, locking arms around the building so that no one could leave until a peaceful resolution to the conflict was reached.
When the talks stalled, the women went further, threatening to publicly undress if the men did not agree to a cease fire.
These were women who had witnessed and experienced countless acts of sexual violence. Why would they stand naked in front of the perpetrators, the men responsible for these war crimes, who had ordered and personally carried out so many horrific acts that they’d lost count? In their quest for power, these warlords and militia fighters had left remorse and guilt behind long ago. Nothing and no one could shame them.
Or could they?
“One way or another, you have a power as a woman.”
— Vaiba Flomo, Liberian Peace Activist
In some parts of Africa, there is a curse associated with seeing your mother or grandmother naked. It is considered the ultimate shaming act, not for the woman, but for you, the viewer. It is a cultural taboo with the power to shock even the most battle-hardened soldier.
The security guards outside the Presidential Palace confronted the demonstrators. In her book Mighty Be Our Powers, Leymah Gbowee recounts the scene:
“‘Who is the leader of this group?’ one called out. ‘Here am I,’ I said, rising to my feet.
‘You are obstructing justice and we are going to have to arrest you.’
Obstructing justice? Had he really said that to me? Justice? I was so angry, I was out of my mind. ‘I will make it very easy for you to arrest me. I’m going to strip naked.’
I took off my hair tie. Beside me, Sugar rose to her feet and began to do the same. I pulled off my lappa, exposing the tights I wore underneath… I didn’t have a plan when I started taking off my clothes. My thoughts were a jumble — Okay, if you think you’ll humiliate me with an arrest, watch me humiliate myself more than you could have dreamed.
I was beside myself, desperate. Every institution that I’d been taught was there to protect the people had proved evil and corrupt; everything I valued had collapsed. These negotiations had been my last hope, but they were crashing, too.
But by threatening to strip, I had summoned up a traditional power. In Africa, it’s a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself. For this group of men to see a woman naked would be almost like a death sentence. Men are born through women’s vaginas, and it’s as if by exposing ourselves, we say, ‘We now take back the life we gave you.’”
The men went back inside the building. Gbowee turned to the media assembled outside, vowing that the women would not give up. Thousands more would join them to pray, sing, dance, protest, and if necessary, strip naked. “We can do it again if we want to,” she warned.
Two weeks later, negotiators reached an accord. Liberia’s dictator was exiled to Nigeria. A transitional government was put in place until democratic elections could be held.
The women returned home victorious, but they knew the most difficult work was ahead: healing their country from the trauma of war would take many years.
There’s a parallel here with the residents of London during World War II who survived the bombing of their city. Rather than being frightened into submission, the British people decided to carry on and keep calm in defiance of those who wanted to terrorize them.
The women of Liberia had seen the worst of their country’s civil war. But instead of subduing and silencing them as their attackers had intended, it emboldened them to act. They were tired of watching helplessly as their families and friends were beaten, tortured, kidnapped, and killed. They were tired of being afraid.
They had seen things they could not un-see. They could tolerate no more. The violence had to be stopped.
It’s these personal breaking points, I think, that so often lead to the turning points that transform communities, causes, and countries. One individual can step forward, galvanizing others to act.
In these moments people cross the threshold to a place beyond fear, and step into a new world of possibilities. No longer trapped by their circumstances, having transcended their fears, they are free to act in ways that previously seemed unimaginable. It is here they find the courage to give their lives in service of a cause greater than themselves.
“We were not afraid. My mother was like, ‘They will beat you people, and they will kill you.’ And we said, well, if I should get killed, just remember me, that I was fighting for peace.”
— Vaiba Flomo, Liberian peace activist
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