Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee may have won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t vocal in her advocacy for women’s rights, educating and protecting children, and letting people know her opinion on various topics. She clearly has the same fiery passion she started with over 20 years ago.
Gbowee spoke to a packed house in the Heritage Room of the Legion Memorial Building on Thursday, telling the audience that “a difference is made by one person who is fed up and takes action.” If someone is truly passionate about what they are doing, and they get moving, he or she can build a community from like-minded people.
That is what happened in Liberia, when a group of women, mostly mothers, came together to help bring an end to years of civil war that had killed nearly 10 percent of the country’s population; made sexual slaves of women and children; and turned boys as young as 10 into child soldiers. A group of 2,000 women gathered outside then-President Charles Taylor’s house to protest the war. Later a group of approximately 300 women walked to the site of slow-moving peace talks and staged a sit-in to put additional pressure on the different sides. An agreement was reached in 2003.
Then in 2005, Liberia elected its first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is a co-recpient of the Nobel Prize with Gbowee and Tawakei Karman. Sirleaf was re-elected in 2011 with Gbowee’s support.
Gbowee said the women’s movement crossed religious affiliations, including Christians and Muslims, and the old religious divides have nearly disappeared as more people marry outside their faith. “We’re cool,” she smiled.
However, she is concerned that ethnic competition is starting to creep in and may become a factor in the country’s upcoming election.
When asked about the current tone of the United States presidential election, Gbowee said it has become a joke around the world. One shopkeeper in Ghana asked her if the election was really as bad as it sounded. When Gbowee said it was, the shopkeeper said, “’It sounds like an election in Africa.’”
But no matter who wins, people will need to come together after Nov. 8, she said, asking, “What will your role be to bring this society back on its feet?”
Gbowee told the students that discovering the right cause is important. You may have several concerns but “the one that keeps you up at night” is the one that you must address first. Then take that first step. Because “your passion is what will draw people to you,” she said. “You have to feel passionately about the cause.”
It is that passion that keeps her going after 20 years. Because Gbowee has found that it isn’t an outsider who helps lift a victim to her feet. It is another victim that comes to her aid. It has been the case in Liberia, in the Congo, in South Sudan, in Libya, and Syria. “Those are the people who keep me going.”
And she has learned that you must be wary of those who are willing to give in too easily, Gbowee said, especially when it comes to women’s rights.
“Anything handed to you too easily is not truly yours.”