Liberian Nobel Peace laureate says collective strength, selflessness needed to face global challenges
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee addresses Peace Fellows, Rotarians, and Rotary Foundation alumni at the closing plenary session of the Rotary World Peace Symposium 5 May. Rotary Images/Monika Lozinska
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee called upon Rotary Peace Fellows, Rotarians, and Rotary Foundation alumni to use their collective strength and passion to help tackle today’s global challenges.
Speaking at the closing plenary session of the Rotary World Peace Symposium, Gbowee shared her personal journey from an angry victim of war to a peace activist. “My purpose here is to inspire where inspiration is needed, to encourage where encouragement is needed, and to raise up where complacency has set in,” said Gbowee.
In 2003, Gbowee mobilized women across religious and ethnic lines to bring an end to Liberia’s long and bloody war. As the founder of Women for Peace, she rallied women in a fish market to sing and pray in protest, and urged wives of leaders of warring factions to withhold sex until the leaders laid down their arms.
The campaign culminated in the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s president, the first woman freely elected as a head of state in Africa.
Service as a mandate
Gbowee described how she traveled throughout Africa to communities where brutalization of women is common.
“I expected to find bitterness and hatred -- what I found instead was strength,” Gbowee said. “They transcended the sorrow of their lives to discover in themselves the courage and will to rebuild their lives and communities. These women came to the realization that banding together for action wasn’t a choice but a life.”
“Like Rotarians, these women see service to humanity as a mandate that must be obeyed,” she added.
The world still struggles with the true meaning of service, Gbowee said, and Rotarians and peace fellows must join together to help the world understand what service can achieve. “The challenges in our world can’t be solved by individualistic thinking. These challenges must be tackled by groups of individuals who understand that collective strength and selflessness is the only way out,” she said. “Sometimes the craziest ideas can give you the most impressive change.”
Working for peace
Peace fellows gave Gbowee a standing ovation. Yolanda Cowan, a 2003-05 peace fellow at Sciences Po in Paris has been working for UNICEF in Liberia. She said she’s seen the impact Gbowee had on the country’s women.
“She was a mythical and wonderful figure in Liberian society,” says Cowan. “Her message today was about the courage it takes to stand up for what you believe in. She’s empowered so many women.”
Earlier in the session, Rotary Foundation Trustee Chair-elect Wilfrid J. Wilkinson thanked the peace fellows for their work and praised the Rotary Peace Centers program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.
“We have vastly increased peacemaking resources,” said Wilkinson. “Providing clean water, food, and education to all children will go a long way at attacking the root causes of war. With all the positive forces we are creating, how can we not believe peace is possible?"
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