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Breaking down walls

Leymah Gbowee helps other girls and women realize their own power


In 2011, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee was in Oslo, Norway, waiting in a room with a few friends before she delivered her Nobel lecture.

Gbowee had lived in a refugee camp, worked as a counselor for child soldiers, and led a nonviolent peace movement that played a pivotal role in ending a bloody 14-year period of civil war in Liberia. But still, they asked her, “What’s next?” “

My answer was simple,” she recalls. “Duh, I just won the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m going to retire at 39. They said, ‘No, you’re still young. Think.’ The only thing I could think about in that moment was girls and education.”

Leymah Gbowee will be a keynote speaker at the 2023 Rotary International Convention. Join us in Melbourne to connect with other Rotary members and discover new opportunities through Rotary.

She went on to found Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, which focuses on just that. Since its inception in 2012, the organization has awarded more than 500 full scholarships to African young people, most of them women, to study across Africa, Europe, and North America. It has also provided support to schools in Ghana and Liberia that benefited almost 2,000 students. The foundation has held campaigns to inspire and train women and young people to help maintain Liberia's peace. It has moved beyond the classroom to do work in sexual health and reproductive rights, and produced radio programs that encourage discussion about gender-based violence.

"Research has shown that if you educate a girl, you educate a nation," Gbowee said during an event in October celebrating her foundation's 10th anniversary. "I wanted to educate Liberia. I wanted to educate West Africa. And I wanted to educate Africa as a whole."

All those impulses sprang directly from Gbowee's life experiences. She had just graduated from high school and was planning to study medicine when Liberia's civil war started in 1989. Her family fled Monrovia, Liberia's capital, and eventually ended up at a refugee camp in Ghana. In 1991, she returned to Liberia. After her first two children were born, she trained as a trauma counselor through a UNICEF program. She went on to work with former child soldiers, women who had been raped, and children who had witnessed their parents' murders.

And that was just her day job. After getting involved with the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, she helped found the organization's Women in Peacebuilding Network and spent her evenings working as its Liberia coordinator. In 2003 she organized Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which brought together Christian and Muslim women to demonstrate against the war. Dressed in white T-shirts and headscarves, the women fasted, prayed, picketed, and even held a sex strike. For weeks, thousands of women amassed along the daily route of Charles Taylor, then the Liberian president, until he finally agreed to meet with them. Gbowee represented the women at that meeting, and she later led women to Ghana to demonstrate at peace talks between Taylor and opposition forces. When talks stalled, the women blocked the hotel conference room where they were meeting so that delegates could not leave until they reached an agreement. Facing authorities who wanted to kick them out, they threatened to undress, which, according to traditional beliefs, would have brought a curse upon the men. Gbowee's Nobel biography calls the move "tactical brilliance" that "proved to be a decisive turning point for the peace process." Taylor resigned within weeks.

In 2011, Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state (whom Gbowee had helped elect), and Yemeni peace activist Tawakkol Karman. The three were honored "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."

In October, as part of her foundation's 10th anniversary celebration, Gbowee hosted an online event for Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa-USA, an organization that supports her efforts in Liberia. The event featured appearances by several Nobel Peace laureates as well as celebrities such as Sheryl Sandberg, Chelsea Clinton, and Angelique Kidjo. During a virtual "fireside chat," Gbowee and Rotary International President Jennifer Jones exchanged ideas about the importance of educating and empowering girls and women. This is an edited version of their conversation.

Leymah Gbowee: Often when we're growing up, we hear that education is the key. My dad often said to us, "I'm not going to leave you anything. I don't have an inheritance to leave you. What I do have to leave you is to ensure that you are educated."

Jennifer Jones: Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in Uganda, in the Nakivale refugee settlement, sitting with women from varying countries, visiting some of the schools that they've built. Talking with the headmaster and the girls, if they're lucky enough to get through primary school, that's one thing. If they get into secondary school, the statistics go down for child pregnancy and the elimination of child marriage. That's not just in that area, that's in so many different areas.

We understand what education means to young boys as well, and this isn't about one or the other. It's about how do we bring them both forward, so that young boys understand how to deal with young girls, and how we raise each other up.

If you have an educated girl, if you empower that girl, you empower her to become an empowered woman, and for her to be able to then take care and nurture those around her.

Gbowee: I'm just sitting and smiling because as part of the work that we are doing in Liberia, we're deciding to make a sustainable space for girls. The idea is to educate them, but also create an environment where they can thrive. They can go to school, but also learn the other skills to become productive citizens.

Coming back to the statistics of girls in primary school, and then high school, and then college — I think this is the vision for what we do at GPFA [Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa]. Our mantra is "empower to inspire." We are empowering young girls and helping them so that the next time they can inspire others to say they don't just want to be a sixth grader; they want to be a ninth grader, they want to be a 12th grader.

These are the things that will break down walls. It's no longer about shattering the glass ceiling. I think it's about shooting straight for the moon. And if you miss, you land amongst the stars. In several years, we will look at more Jennifer Joneses, more Leymah Gbowees — not just in Africa, but in other parts of the world.

You mentioned going to the refugee camp, and it's always very close to my heart when people talk about going to refugee camps. When the war started, my family went to the Buduburam refugee settlement in Ghana. I had graduated from high school, but my nieces and nephews were in primary school in the refugee camp. So I understand all of these things: living in a congested space, having no hope, being arrested. The time is now to call for peace and justice in a new world order.

Jones: At the same camp that I was at, I had a chance to sit and talk under a shredded up old tent with 20 women. The majority of them had arrived there within the past year, fleeing their country — husbands having been murdered, losing children as they were walking, and sleeping in the bush to get there. It's a story that is happening to far too many people. I just asked them a question. I said, "What do you need?" Not one of them asked for money. Every single one of them asked for opportunity. I think that's huge. When I said, "What kind of opportunity are you looking for?" they said, "I want to be able to create products so that I can sell something, so that I can have money so that I can feed my family, and so that I have a way to make it better to help educate my children." There was a direct line.

A big part of what we're working on, certainly as an organization, is how do we identify those needs, and instead of imposing on people what we think they need, asking them. A big part of peace is listening and understanding what the need is, and then collaborating, figuring out the way forward together.

Gbowee: With someone like yourself in such a huge leadership position, with that mindset, we are definitely going to do great things together. Really and truly, this is the advocacy that I have been making as an activist, as a human rights champion. Regardless of where people are, whether it is a refugee camp in Uganda or Poland, or it is a shelter in Ukraine, don't come and tell anyone this is exactly what we think you need.

I think that kind of respect for engagement is the first step to peace. I believe that ending wars is one thing, but peace is not just ending wars. It's that we're creating an environment where everyone feels like, I'm a human, I belong, that this world exists because of people like myself.

"I tell people I’m not a stereotypical African girl."

What is key in everything that you talked about was the whole idea of respect, the whole idea of freedom to choose. In most instances, when people are refugees, especially women and girls, it's very difficult for them to choose whether they want to go to school, how many children they want to have, what economic empowerment program they want to be in. We can give women the freedom also to contribute to peace and to justice and development in their community at different levels.

Jones: I think we need to learn from what we've been through for the past couple of years, and during the pandemic in particular. It's been a level-setting global event that has taken a lot of hierarchy out of how we exist. Every man, woman, and child on the planet had to go through the same thing. No one had a "get out of jail free" card with the pandemic. I think it's created a different kind of leadership that we need right now — empathetic leadership, compassionate leadership, strong leadership, leading from a place of empathy.

Some of the brightest people that I've met are those that have had the hardest struggles yet, somehow or other, understood that there was something better. Hope is something that we can give to each other. I think that's a big gift for a little girl who's sitting there right now trying to dream her wildest dreams. I grew up in a place of privilege, having food on the table and parents who loved me. They gave me the biggest gift by instilling in me the sense of dreaming and never putting a bushel on my light. And so for that little girl, I want her to know not to let someone dictate her path. Create opportunity as you are able. For that little girl, I want her to know that there's a world out there, and I think then it's incumbent upon all of us to help her get there.

Gbowee: Jennifer, one of the joys that I have meeting you and partnering with you is that together we can join forces, join resources, and create that kind of atmosphere for many young girls. Ten years ago, when I got on this journey, that was my thing: How can I find as many young women to begin to see themselves outside of their current situation? When you hear me talk about shooting for the moon, landing amongst the stars, that is the dream. I grew up in a space where we're five sisters. My grandmother always told us no one would do it for you. My mother always told us no one would do it for you. We had to do it for ourselves. I tell people I'm not a stereotypical African girl. They told me, if you want to fly, you could fly. I'm very grateful that we're going to help many young women to fly.

This story will also appear in the April 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

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