Liberian Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee On Planned Parenthood, Power & Faith

Leymah-Gbowee

One of our favorite women’s conferences to watch each year is the Women In The World summit hosted by Tina Brown in New York. The diverse array of women featured include famous actresses, politicians, activists, royalty, innovators, survivors, Nobel laureates, and women moving the needle toward positive change the world. This year the Summit in London did not disappoint with the likes of Nicole Kidman, Queen Rania of Jordan, Cara Delevingne, Winnie Harlow, Scottish MP Nicole Sturgeon, and Malala Yousafzai.

One woman who we were rather excited to listen to was Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work helping to bring an end to a tumultuous time in her country’s history. From 1989 to 2003 a was was waging in Liberia, lead by warlord Charles Taylor, which stemmed from economic and political strife, ethnic tensions, a struggle over natural resources, and child soldiers.

Leymah became an instrumental part of this war by mobilizing Christian and Muslim women together to stage sit-ins and united protests in order to force the end of the war. They formed the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement and withheld sex from their husbands in order to get them to raise their voices and stop the ongoing conflict.

In 2003 the civil war ended and Leymah and her fellow women are credited as helping bring down Charles Taylor, as well as ensuring Liberia elected their first female president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who incidentally also became the first female president in all of Africa). The whole incredible story can be seen in the documentary ‘Pray The Devil Back To Hell’ which we highly recommend every one of our readers watch.

Leymah-Gbowee

Since bringing peace to her country and enabling an army of women to recognize their united, Leymah has launched the Gbowee Peace Foundation which has partnered up with Planned Parenthood to help teen girls in over 60 countries have access to reproductive healthcare in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies as well as help them get educated.

One of the most important parts of Leymah’s work is trauma healing, where she helps women who have escaped conflict and war zones to address their trauma and find the right course of action to ensure a better future. She told Women In The World that peace is not a possibility unless trauma is addressed, however it often gets overlooked.

“There’s no way any woman can actively be involved in these efforts if her personal trauma is not addressed. You can’t give what you don’t have. No one can give peace if they aren’t at peace with themselves. There is no way we can talk about peace without talking about trauma and look at the healing process, just as we cannot talk development and reconstruction after conflict without talking about reconciliation,” she said.

Just last year we saw the very first summit addressing the trauma women face during and after a conflict zone being held in London. Hosted by Angelina Jolie and William Hague, the End Sexual Violence in Conflict gathered world leaders and NGOs to hear talks about this issue and place importance on ensuring women are not sidelined when a plan of action is put in place to rebuild a nation or communities.

That conference was certainly a long time coming, where the actress urged leaders to understand that rape is should not be looked at as an “inevitable” part of war, but that it is strategically being used to wield power. There are women and men recognizing the powers that they possess which can be used to turn a dire situation around. This is something Leymah addresses in her book ‘Mighty Be Our Powers’.

Leymah-Gbowee

In Liberia, the civil war had already been waging for nearly a decade before Leymah decided to rise up and tap into her own power at the age of 31. She says her anger had been building for a long time, but wanted to use it in the right way in order to combat the hatred and strife that was led by a different type of anger across Liberia. She was inspired by some well-known revolutionaries who used their anger to make effective change.

“There are two battles: the nonviolent battle and the violent battle. Everyone carries some level of anger within them. The way heroes and villains distinguish from one another is how they decide to express their anger. Dr. King was an angry man, Gandhi was an angry man, Mandela was an angry man — but the ones that we celebrate as heroes now are the ones who decided, ‘I will put my anger into a constructive, non-violent container.’ After all of those years of carrying [anger] that I decided one day, I’m going to use my voice and use non-violent activities as a means of addressing the hellish things that I’ve seen,” she said.

One of the great things she said in the interview is that the women of Liberia are not victims. Even though there is much oppression and discrimination happening toward women around the world, Leymah believes when the women were able to themselves as powerful, it made a huge difference.

“The myth that every African woman is a victim is something that needs to end. People should look at the spirit of the African woman, the tenacity of the African woman. Even the the midst of a lot of challenges, including socioeconomic laws against them, they are still able to do great things and big things in their communities,” she said.

“Even without resources, we were able to explode the glass ceiling by electing Africa’s first female president. We were able to end a war. We’ve been able to bring our girls to the understanding that their rights are something that they need to fight for.”

Leymah-Gbowee

Seeing themselves as an empowered community helped them channel their efforts to make effective change, much like in the way the aforementioned Gandhi, Mandela and Dr. King were able to do.

“We now know how to channel the negative energy into positive protest for action for whatever we’re demanding. The girls who will not easily let their rights be trampled on — I think that’s a huge change…everyone in Liberia, every little girl looks at herself and sees herself not just as a mother or wife, which was the typical mindset in the past. Now, [she thinks], I can be a lawmaker, I can be president, I can be another Nobel laureate, I can be something huge,” explains Leymah.

Working with Planned Parenthood with her foundation, Leymah talks about the current situation in US Congress where the healthcare organization has come under fire for heavily edited undercover tapes reportedly showing doctors agreeing to sell baby parts for a “profit”. So far, each state, including the first Congressional hearing, has found no wrong doing to the point where they need to be stripped of any federal funding, but the fight for one of America’s foremost provider of reproductive healthcare for women rages on. Leymah believes American women need to take action and raise their voices about this issue.

“Women in the U.S., it’s time for them to really use their voice, use whatever it takes to end this nonsense. It’s not enough that they sit in their living rooms and complain about what they see on TV. It’s time for them to challenge their lawmakers and challenge their politicians who are out there, making some of the crazy assertions that they’re making,” she said, and we couldn’t agree more!

It ties into the general way equality is perceived in a first world country like the US, where there are many who claim feminism is outdated or unnecessary these days.

Leymah-Gbowee

“There’s a general feeling that, especially with a lot of people who have no understanding of feminism and where the women’s movement in [the United States] has come from, that we’ve succeeded, we’ve made it, and there’s no more struggle…there’s a huge sense of apathy…You see blogs where people say, ‘feminism is not for the U.S. anymore, we’ve achieved what we’ve been looking for.’ It’s really laughable to think that the whole concept of feminism ends because you’ve got some laws enacted,” she said.

She makes a great point that a lot of the women’s rights movement victories happened only a mere 50 years ago, but if we don’t continue to capitalize on those gains it will be very easy for them to be rolled back, as we are kinda seeing with the Planned Parenthood issue. In an op-ed for Cosmopolitan Magazine, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards laid out the argument that this fight is not over the use of fetal tissue, it is a blatant attack on the reproductive rights afforded to women after Roe v Wade in 1973 and an effort to make abortion illegal again.

“Abortion is a legal medical procedure in this country, and Congress has no right to target the organizations that provide it or the women who seek them. Every woman should be able to freely make decisions about her health and her future in consultation with her family, her faith, and her doctors — and without being shamed by politicians,” she wrote.

The key here is women having the right to make their own decisions without the interference of politics, lobby groups or especially religious organizations.

It has certainly been a wake up call to many American women that there is work to be done and our voices being raised are not going to waste. We love that Leymah Gbowee continues to share the amazing work she and many other women are doing in Liberia, but also using it as an example to challenge women across the world to tap into their own power and speak up for causes that are affecting us in our communities.

You can hear more about her story, channeling her anger into positive action and how she managed to convince Christian and Muslim women to work together for a common good in the WITW video below:

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