Nobel Peace Laureates

“You can tell people of the need to struggle, but when the powerless start to see that they really can make a difference, nothing can quench the fire.” – Leymah Gbowee
- Leymah Gbowee
Leymah Gbowee was born in 1972 in Monrovia, Liberia, and spent most of her formative years there, which at the time was one of the most modern and sophisticated cities in West Africa. Leymah attended private school, and was always a very driven and ambitious student. In high school she served as a senator in the student government and was on the honor roll. She had dreams of being a doctor, and in 1990, after graduating from high school, she planned to enroll in the University of Liberia to study medicine.

It was at this same time that a small group of rebels passed from the neighboring country of Cote d’Ivoire into a small county in northern Liberia. Led by a man named Charles Taylor, the rebels were starting a movement to overthrow the current Liberian president, Samuel Doe. Doe was a corrupt and violent man who had sharply divided the Liberian population along tribal identities. It was in the face of this discrimination and corruption that Taylor started his rebel movement to kick Doe and his followers out of their political offices.

As Taylor and his men advanced towards Monrovia, thousands of people became displaced as well as victims of rape, looting, and violence, by both government and rebel soldiers. Because Leymah’s father worked for the Liberian Security Agency in the US Embassy, he was able to send for his family, and they found safety there. As the situation in Liberia continued to deteriorate, Leymah, along with her mother and sisters, made plans to flee Liberia on a refugee boat that was headed for Ghana. They ended up in the Buduburam refugee camp, living among thousands of other displaced Liberians.

In 1991 there was a break in the fighting, and Leymah returned to Liberia. There she ran into a man named Daniel, whom she had met in Buduburam, and they began a relationship. Daniel and Leymah had four children together, but Daniel turned into an emotionally and physically abusive man. In an effort to gain back some independence and self-confidence, Leymah enrolled in a local social work program. There she received her social work certificate and began working with refugees of the Sierra Leone civil war, helping to heal them from the traumas of war. Leymah enjoyed her role in helping others to heal, and in an effort to also heal herself, left Daniel and moved back in with her parents.

Then, her work as a peace-builder really began. With the encouragement of her mother, Leymah returned to school and received her Associate of Arts Degree while volunteering with the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP). She worked with those in the rural communities who had suffered the worst acts of violence during the war; as well as with “Taylor’s Boys,” who where the children Taylor’s men had abducted and forced to become child soldiers.

Leymah’s work, especially with the women of her country, made her realize how important it was for women to have a voice in the peace process, and Leymah dreamed of a time when women would be called together to fight for peace. A friend of Leymah’s, who she had met through her trauma healing work, presented her with a life-changing opportunity to make this dream a reality.

Leymah’s friend, Thelma Ekiyor, had started an organization known as the Women in Peacebuilding Network, or WIPNET, and she asked Leymah to head the Liberian chapter. Leymah became their voice as the women of Liberia called for an end to the war. By this time, Taylor had been elected President of Liberia, but another rebel force had been carrying out attacks in and around Monrovia in an effort to overthrow him. There had now been violence in Liberia for roughly 14 years. The women of WIPNET decided they would not rest until peace was achieved. Leymah led several outreach campaigns to both Christian and Muslim women, which started the creation of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Movement. This movement brought thousands of women from all over the country to Monrovia day after day, wearing white and bringing signs declaring peace. The women of WIPNET staged a sit-in at a fish market by Capitol Hill, and told Taylor they would not move until he agreed to meet with them.

They sat for weeks, in the baking hot sun and pouring rain, until Taylor eventually set up a meeting. As WIPNET’s voice, Leymah was chosen to address Taylor. She called for an immediate end to the fighting, and the resumption of peace talks between Taylor and the rebels with oversight from an international organization. Taylor agreed to these conditions. Leymah and other other core WIPNET workers made the same plea to the rebels, who also agreed. In June, Leymah and other supporters traveled to Ghana where the peace talks were being held, and staged a sit in there as well. However, the news day after day was that the negotiations were stalled. Leymah eventually led the women inside to the meeting hall, looped arms, and created a blockade, not allowing anyone out until an agreement had been signed. This last effort changed the course of the peace talks and by August, West African peacekeeping troops had arrived in Liberia, intercepting thousands of dollars worth of weapons that were intended for Taylor. A few days later, Taylor resigned and went into exile in Nigeria.

Leymah’s work was instrumental in pushing Taylor into exile and smoothing the path for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election -Africa’s first female head of state. Gbowee has continued her work in peace and conflict resolution, and is now leading the Liberia Reconciliation Initiative, one of the six coordinating organizations that created and guides the roadmap of resolution. She is the President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, based in Monrovia, and also serves as the Executive Director of Women, Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa).

Listen to Leymah Gbowee's TED Talk on the power of women and girls.