Trauma to triumph

Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee urges American women to take action

“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 their politicians”

(Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

In the four years that have passed since Leymah Roberta Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize, she has been busy taking on governments around the world in her fight for global justice for women and girls. “Talking about issues around human rights and social justice — that’s what I do,” she told Women in the World.

Gbowee, a mother of seven, started protesting at the age of 31, fourteen years into the war that was ravaging her country. She brought Muslim and Christian women together to build Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, staging sit-ins and sex strikes that effectively helped to end the Second Liberian Civil War. With her support, Africa’s first female head of state was elected shortly after the conflict ended.

Her organization, the Gwobee Peace Foundation, has partnered with Planned Parenthood to educate over 60 girls in six countries on reproductive health — “and reproductive rights,” she stressed — to fight the “menace” of teenage pregnancy that could keep them from education and other opportunities. A leadership component is set to follow, educating girls through internship and mentorship during their four years of university.

Gbowee will speak at the Women in the World London Summit on October 9 and in preparation for her appearance, she caught up with us to discuss the importance of trauma healing, the imperative to educate girls and women, and how Liberia has changed since her revolutionary organizing began.

Women in the World: Your understanding of trauma [as a former trauma counselor to child soldiers] must inform your understanding of women living through atrocities — such as those in Syria and the refugee crisis right now. What happens if we ignore women’s needs in these situations?

Leymah Gwobee: What we often tend to overlook, as we begin to have conversations around peace, peace-building and women’s involvement, is that 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.

Trauma healing is a key component of that. In some communities, it’s a group of women sharing their stories and doing simple acts of cleansing, to move them from one stage to the next stage; powerful rituals that move women towards activism and advocacy.

I’ve been working with South Sudanese women for two years now, around building their movement of peace. Recently, I found myself working with a group of 30 Syrian activists — I can’t name the place where we were because some of them had to go back to both the government side and the ISIS side — but trauma healing was key. Just talking about their stories. I noticed in the middle of one of our conversations, some of the most lively of the participants just broke down. For people who haven’t experienced this, it would be a weird thing. But for someone like myself, who lived through trauma, I knew that [in] all of the dancing and the clapping, there was going to be a moment when people would either get very angry and want to throw a chair, or people would just cry.

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. All of these go hand in hand.

WITW: You didn’t start protesting until you were 31, and the Second Liberian Civil War had been going on for [over a] decade at that point. What was the catalyst that drove you to action?

LG: People don’t just wake up one day — it builds up. So from 17 up until 31, there was always this anger. The question was, how do I express it? In my community, people’s expression of their anger led us to 14 years of war. I didn’t want to be in that category of people whose expression of their anger led to more hate and more anger.

The metaphor that I use in describing anger is that it’s fluid, like water. 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.

I’ve had experience working with women who quote-unquote do not live in conflict situations, they live in peaceful societies like the U.S. and some other places that I go to, if [the] definition of peace is the absence of war. I put “peace” in quotes. The need for healing among [these] women is just as strong as women living in war situations because our issues as women are borderless. Maybe one group is feeling it at a very intense level, but we share the same common problems, we share the same common issue, we share the same difficulties in our lives. Healing for women is mandatory for their well being.

WITW: What does the world need to know about the modern woman in Liberia?

LG: First things first, 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. Imagine if [they] had the resources available, if we had some of the gains that have been made in other parts of the world — what we would be able to do on our continent would be, by far, greater. Speaking as a Liberian woman, I’m saying that there’s no way any one can look at us with their noses turned [up]. Even without resources, we were able to explode the glass ceiling by electing Africa’s first female president [President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia]. 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. The spirit, the strength, the tenacity – these are things that people need to think about not only when they think about Liberian women, African women. Nobody should even consider African women as these stereotypes — sagging breasts, victims of violence — yes, we have some of those issues, but we bounce back after all of those things and come back very strong.

WITW: How has Liberia changed since you founded Liberian Mass Action for Peace?

LG: It changed for the better for women, because 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, some for good, some for bad. For me, a lot of it is for good. Everyone, 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.

WITW: So much here in the United States is going on with Planned Parenthood right now and those resources, that education, is needed around the world because women around the world have [generally] the same makeup.

LG: It’s really unfortunate what we see happening in the U.S. around Planned Parenthood. There’s a lot of misinformation about [its] worth. If this craziness continues, my fear is the exporting of these ideas into places where we’re trying to make strides.

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.

WITW: To use the space they have, and the freedoms they have.

LG: 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. When people get to that place, there’s a huge sense of apathy. Since I came here to work at different universities, 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.

WITW: Right. It doesn’t stop once you get the vote, it doesn’t stop when abortion is legalized.

LG: What more people need to understand, especially young women [in the United States] who do not understand the women’s movement – [this happened] less than fifty years ago. [These women] are still alive today. Less than fifty years ago, you could not be a teacher and be pregnant. You would be prosecuted for that. These are things that happened in very short periods in history and if they do not step up and maximize the gains that have been made, we’re definitely going to roll back. We’ll see future generations fighting for things that have [already] been achieved.

WITW: You’ve worked with so many women. Who inspires you?

LG: I get this all of the time and in the past, I would say, my mother, my grandmother. But I look at women in South Sudan who have no stake in the political process, who have no benefits when peace comes, other than to go back to their villages and languish in poverty again. But they are the ones who are not giving up [the idea that] their societies can be good. And look at women in Syria, the young activists and the older ones who may never live to see the peace they are fighting for. In Libya, those young women and men, and older women. In Liberia, in the villages, those who are standing up to patriarchy. They’re not deterred that peace will not change their socioeconomic state, what they want to do is that they want to work for peace. That is my inspiration. The way I simply put it is, if that woman, in a village somewhere, is not giving up, then I am not giving up either.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Leymah Roberta Gbowee will appear at the Women in the World London Summit, October 8-9.

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