In her final report from the Wilton Park conference, Rosemary Bechler speaks to Liberian peace activist Leymah Roberta Gbowee, about women's essential role in peacebuilding.
4. Empowerment - what it looks and sounds like
My last encounter is with Leymah Roberta Gbowee, Liberian Executive Director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa based in Accra, Ghana, committed to promoting women's leadership in peace and security governance in Africa. Leymah kindly agrees, although she is exhausted, to leave the supper table for another interview. She has her own advocacy and communication strategy well in place with a stunning feature film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, that has been doing the rounds on various continents where women asked this Liberian activist, 'how did you know my story?' and which she is taking next to Israel and Palestine.
Leymah came to prominence in the worst years of Liberian conflict when she somehow organised a collaborative network of 2,000 women peace builders from nine of Liberia's fifteen provinces. Curled up on a huge sofa, she tells me the story with a relish which doesn't suggest that she has covered the same ground three times today already:
"The activism started fifteen years ago, probably, with the anger and pain that built up over the years when I was a survivor of war in Liberia. It was by chance that this anger was redirected into something positive. I happened to meet a group of women from Sierra Leone who had come to Liberia as refugees. They had suffered the worst form of atrocity that you can suffer and still be alive - but these women had so much zest for life even after these experiences! I am sitting there considering myself a victim of war, when I have never been raped, no part of my body has been mutilated. I have suffered hunger and been uprooted from the comfortable space of my home. My family was displaced and later on became refugees. But just seeing these women and seeing that they still thought they had roles to play in the rebuilding process of their nation - that led me to rethink the self-image I had as a victim.
"Earlier on in my life I had worked as a caseworker in the trauma-healing project of the Lutheran church in Liberia. Then in 2001, I encountered a Nigerian young lady called Thelma Ikeja, who shared with me her vision of a woman's peacebuilding network for West Africa. She invited me to a consultative meeting. I took the idea back with me to Liberia and mobilised a few women to do capacity-building in women's organisations in peacebuilding and leadership skills. Two organisations then came together in 2003, as the war was closing in on Monrovia and anarchy was imminent, to collaborate in the fight for peace in our society: the Christian Women's Peace Initiative that I had founded and the Liberian Muslim Women for Peace. 'Let's do something' we agreed, and one idea for mass action just led to another.
"On a daily basis we consulted and as the news spread of what we were doing in one community, women began to mobilise around us. But they wouldn't start their process, until we had visited them and endorsed what they were doing. Gradually, all of the different communities began to invite us to come to them. They felt that our presence as the founder members validated what they were attempting to do. I don't really understand why to this day. But long afterwards, we were able to cooperate together very closely.
"For example, during the disarmament period, women in each community were busy sensitising combatants on the need to disarm. There were times that our contact with UN officials in the capital was crucial in the work that they were doing. In one community they had disarmed the fighters and promised them some incentives, but after one week, the incentives still weren't there. These combatants were saying to the women, 'Go to the town and let the authorities know that we haven't received our due. If you come back empty-handed, we will keep some of your women hostage, and we will deal with them.' Because they knew we worked closely with the Office of the Chairman of the Transitional Government, we were able to take them there and the Chairman called a meeting immediately with the EU, the UN, the US Embassy and the Coordinating Body on Disarmament. At first they accused our colleagues, saying that they were troublemakers and that everything had been done as promised, but the women insisted, and we helped them, that they hadn't fulfilled their side of the bargain.
"It wasn't just a question of saving those hostages, it reinforced the legitimacy of the work that those women were doing in their communities, and it certainly reinforced the authority that we had as leaders of the group. It instantly became clear to a lot of people that whatever we promised our communities would actually be delivered. That increased our credibility tenfold."
What did Leymah see as the main problem in dealing with sexual violence? She was not convinced by what she saw as too much of an emphasis on the potential brutalisation of men as combatants. "How was it" she wanted to know, "that soldiers could function as civil human beings in their own homes with their wives and daughters, but couldn't function in the same capacity on the field?" Military peacekeepers, she argued, needed to be aware of the huge responsibility they had and the extensive powers to rehumanise women after conflict, after rape, after their entire dignity has been taken away, "because peacekeepers come into a society when everything has broken down as the knight in shining armour. Whatever they do, society will, under those extreme circumstances, tend to dance to their tune. So if they came in with a very tough stance - and I am talking here about the foot soldiers who interact with the communities - and if their commanders in those areas make it plain that they have zero tolerance for violence against women, communities will follow suit. If communities see these combatants working alongside women on these high priority projects - then communities step into line."
She was talking from practical experience, she urged, "In Liberia, some African peacekeepers worked with women in small groups, and the result was amazing. They got so much respect from combatants who only a short time earlier were abusing women verbally, sexually and in every way possible. How did they get that respect? These women used to go into different communities with their message about peaceful coexistence, sensitising them to encourage their young children to lay down their arms. To get there, they would have to walk for hours - sometimes two or three hours to the next village. Then the West African peacekeepers started producing vehicles and escorts for them. Community members seeing this, noticed that these women were not being exploited. They were voluntarily collaborating with these peacekeepers, because the peacekeepers saw the advantage of these women going into communities that they couldn't reach. So, at the same time it raised the women's profile. Peacekeepers are seen as powerful people, and those they respect - the women who are seen to be dealing with the authorities - also have authority conferred upon them. Communities and combatants in those communities begin to think - we should follow suit."
In Liberia, Leymah continued, "we had an advantage. We had a group of drivers for peace who had seen peace before. It was not the first, the second, the third time - we had signed countless peace agreements, and each and every one had broken down sooner or later. People had become too complacent and it fell through again. So in 2003, we didn't want that to happen again. We knew we had to keep up the momentum until we had an elected democracy."
She is quite aware of the irony of the current situation in her country: "Now we have an elected democracy and things are finally moving - but I have to say that we no longer have a women's movement with a collective agenda that can address some of the many challenges of post-conflict rebuilding. Everyone has fallen back into the old individualistic way of doing things, 'I run my NGO: you run your NGO. We meet at meetings. We hug and kiss.' But we don't have a collective women's agenda. What can be done? Well, we have been having a series of discussions which look at where we have come from, where we are today, and how to move forward charting a course for our daughters so that they have much better lives. UN Resolution 1325 and CEDAW - these mean something to me as an educated person. But the challenge is, how do we make it mean something to a woman in a village who has no education? We're going to use cartoons, films and put it into local languages."
"We want to see peacekeepers before they are deployed, receiving not just two hours of gender training, but two weeks of intensive training packed full of case studies - real life examples of sexual violence and how and why it takes place. When one of the generals here from Liberia included in his presentation a graphic and disturbing picture of a woman who was raped and had a weapon inserted in her body before she was killed with three of her children. As he showed that clip, every general in that large room turned his head away. So there is a human in all of those men that people tend to think of as so military that they are inured to violence. We have to ask ourselves: what role can culture play in solving some of these problems of sexual and gender-based violence. But we have to do this with open minds, and not assuming that rape is implicit in African culture - or any similar dogma. I disagree with that assumption. I grew up in a home with family members who were typical Africans and who practised the traditional ways of doing things. There was never a day when my father raised his hand against any woman or any of his daughters. What we did see, frequently, was him getting upset in the community and walking into other homes to intervene when the husbands were beating their wives. Young men were socialised in that typical social setting to be the protectors of their women. In these traditional cultures, you would often hear these men say, jokingly, 'Well, we have had these meetings, and the women are absent. We can't take a decision until we have slept on it.' This meant that they would have to consult their wives overnight, and usually the ideas they then brought forward were the ones that we women had put to them!"
"There is a role for everyone in the fight to minimise the impact of warfare on women's lives and to stop rape. And we should begin that sustained advocacy now. That is what I think."
Women targeted by armed conflict
Read the four reports from the conference
Stop rape now: UN action against sexual violence in conflict