Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Leymah Gbowee, shared her experience as a peace activist last Tuesday to a sold-out Pacific Ballroom as part of the “Living Peace Speaker Series” hosted by the Center for Living Peace in partnership with UC Irvine.
The Center for Citizen Peacebuilding also co-hosted the event and presented Gbowee with the Citizen Peacebuilding Award for fostering and creating dialogue about peace.
Born in central Liberia in 1972, Gbowee lived through two civil wars that deeply impacted her life. After the end of the First Liberian Civil War, Gbowee began her social work in 1998 by volunteering for trauma and reconciliation programs tending to ex-child soldiers. Later, she became involved with the Women in Peacebuilding Network, where she met women from all over West Africa learning and participating in grassroots peace organizing.
In 2002, Gbowee began organizing with women of different ethnic and religious groups in Liberia to rally for peace and the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. This marked the beginning of the women’s movement for peace and the work that would become her legacy. She eventually gathered thousands of women to protest outside the mansion of Liberian President, Charles Taylor.
After months of protests, Gbowee led a delegation of women to Accra, Ghana, where a peace agreement was signed, bringing an end to the war. However, the movement continued after the war. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as Liberia’s president and first elected woman leader in Africa. Sirleaf and Gbowee would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for their work in peacebuilding and women’s rights.
Kelly Smith, founder of the Center for Living Peace, and Thomas Parham, UCI Vice Chancellor Student Affairs, praised Gbowee for her work as they introduced her during the event.
“Gbowee is living proof that nonviolence can bring an entire country from the brink of war and chaos, back to peace,” Parham said.
When she took the stage, Gbowee made the terms “living peace” and “leaving a legacy of peace” the center of her lecture, using her personal experiences to further her message. She began by speaking about an opportunity she had to be a part of a delegation to visit the Dalai Lama, to celebrate his 25th anniversary of becoming a Nobel laureate. It would have been her first time meeting the Dalai Lama, but a few days before her trip, she received an email from South Sudan asking her to participate in peace talks between women on opposing sides of the Sudanese conflict. At first, Gbowee told the women she could not attend, but eventually decided to join them.
“There was something about that trip that I needed,” Gbowee said. “The UN hired two consultants to do all of the advocacy. Virtually my role there was to be an ornament — the Nobel laureate in a space with grassroots women, but the beauty of my being there is that I am a grassroots woman. As soon as I got there, the Nobel laureate went out the window and the grassroots woman came alive.”
She went on to describe her time with these women as she worked with them to focus on self-empowerment and shared their stories with one another. “I told myself, this is where I belong, this is what God has sent me to do,” Gbowee said, “working with women, living peace with them and leaving a legacy of peace.”
Gbowee shared some of their stories with the audience before moving on to talk about global conflicts and how they affect women. She spoke about the women she has met through establishing the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa and the importance of maintaining hope with all of the world’s injustices.
“Some of the places you go to, you ask yourself ‘Is there hope?’ When girls are being abused and women are being trampled and gun violence is the order of the day, and politicians are more thieves than anything else and corruption is everywhere, it smells from a distance when you walk into some countries, you ask yourself ‘Is there any hope? Is anything going to change?’”
To answer this, she recounted a February trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation. During the trip, she visited and talked to women who had been raped. The international media that followed her, latched on to the victimhood aspects of the women’s stories. Gbowee, however, challenged the notion of African women as merely victims and subjects of violence.
“I sat there, not looking at victims of rape, but looking at women who were changing the shackles of victimhood into victories.”