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Nobel Peace laureate weighs in on how to constructively use your anger

Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee: “Anger is like liquid, like water, it’s very fluid … pour it in a nonviolent container, or pour it in a violent container.”

Anger is a powerful motivator. “Anger is like liquid, like water, it’s very fluid,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, 43, said at the Women in the World Summit in London on Friday. Gbowee won the 2011 Nobel prize for her efforts to quell the Second Liberian civil war in 2003, helping drive dictator Charles Taylor into exile. When we feel anger rising up, Gbowee said in conversation with CNN’s Hala Gorani, “we have two options: pour it in a nonviolent container, or pour it in a violent container. The container you pick will be your legacy. What differentiates you and I from Charles Taylor is that we choose to use our anger constructively.”

Gbowee’s revolutionary method of peaceful protest brought Christian and Muslim women together through sit-ins and sex strikes, united in their effort to end the fighting. She still feels anger looking back upon images of herself from the time, as depicted in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. “The anger is always there, because I keep telling myself this should not be anyone’s reality,” she said. “No group of people should ever live that way, should ever have to go to their leader and say, ‘we cannot continue to be raped and to be hungry.’”

Gbowee shares her Nobel with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female president in Africa, and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist and activist.

A mother of seven, Gbowee was just a teenager when Liberia’s first civil war erupted in 1989. “When the war started, I remember vividly the first time I saw a dead body,” Gbowee said. She was walking with her family when she spotted the body of a woman who had been shot coming back from church. “She was clinging to her Bible and the dogs were feeding on her body. I froze I could not move. I was 17. By the time I was 29, I could walk past a body without flinching,” Gbowee recalled. “There’s something about living in a protracted climate of conflict that makes that normal.”

In such a climate, getting a women’s protest movement off the ground took time, effort, and radical measures. “Our movement did not start automatically, it took three years,” Gbowee recalled, describing how “several of us broke girls” banded together, paying $10 to publish their protest. At the time, “A lot of the reporting [about Liberia] was about boys killing each other and Charles Taylor’s war chest,” Gbowee said. “Women and children were not part of it. So we decided to change the narrative.”

But to get attention from the media, and from the men running the country, Gbowee and her fellow protesters had to turn the hypersexualization of women into a weapon for change. Threatened with arrest, she told policemen, “I’m going to strip naked,” which sent them running, she said. “We have been raped as women, we’ve been abused … If you say, I’m going to give you the last shred of my dignity, and I’m going to do that voluntarily, people will pay attention.”

Gbowee now works with refugees and survivors of conflicts around the world, and devotes her time to running the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, which works to provide education and resources to women, girls, and youth throughout the continent. Taylor is now serving a 50-year sentence in a UK prison for aiding and abetting war crimes (“I’m not visiting him,” Gbowee said), but justice has yet to be served in Liberia.

“When the Taylor trial ended and he was sentenced and subsequently in prison here, I asked myself, did that scale tilt in a balanced way? And my answer was no,” she said on Friday. “For me, justice will finally be served if his assets are sold and given to the people. He is an example for the rest of the leaders in Africa. For the scale to be balanced, some reparations must happen.”

Liberia still has to work toward reconciling with fighters who took part in the atrocities. “You have to control the process of rehumazing these fighters, and I realize that in order for us to live a life of peace, we need to see the human in them,” she said.

Giving women a role in foreign policy is one way of moving toward that end, experience has shown her. “The way peace is done in this world is seen with one eye covered. We can’t see the whole picture before we remove the hand from the other eye. That’s what women bring to the table,” she told Gorani. “Women will give you a different perspective on peace and security.”

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