When 14 years of civil war in Liberia came to a close in 2003, a woman whose peace movement had stopped the violence handed the baton over to another who would be responsible for the country’s rebuilding.
Those two women, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” the Nobel committee announced. Yemeni opposition leader Tawakkol Karman also shared the prize.
Gbowee, 39, has been in the midst of her nation’s civil war since age 17, when she moved to Monrovia to work as a trauma counselor during the first Liberian civil war. There, she treated former child soldiers from the army of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who is now being held by the United Nations on allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In 2002, Gbowee organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a nonviolent group of women who demonstrated for peace, and the Women in Peacebuilding Network, which issued this statement to Taylor that year:
In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails.
After years of mobilizing women to vote and to fight against the brutal war, Gbowee’s efforts paid off. Taylor resigned on Aug. 11, 2003, and peace efforts soon followed.
Gbowee’s work also helped pave the way for Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, to become the first female democratically elected president of an African nation.
Liberia emerged from war with more than 85 percent of its population living below the international poverty line. Johnson-Sirleaf — who had served as minister of finance and worked at financial institutions — seemed a natural choice to lead the wounded nation.
Since being elected, Johnson Sirleaf, 72, has worked to promote development and garnered admiration from many in the United States and Europe.
Johnson Sirleaf points out that she later pushed for Taylor’s exile and has supported his prosecution at a war crimes tribunal in neighboring Sierra Leone. Of her bid for reelection next week, she told Time Magazine in a recent interview:
We need to ensure that there's no reversal of the many gains that we have made. It has taken us almost five years to repair a broken economy, a broken country... Everything's in place now. We cannot afford to put the country in the hands of someone that lacks the experience.
The social, economic and security situation in Liberia is indeed still fragile. And the country depends on foreign aid, including from the United States. In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Johnson Sirleaf wrote that while the international funds have fostered enormous progress for her country, Liberia hopes to soon outgrow the need for aid.
“We look forward to a day when our economy thrives, when our children no longer suffer... and when the women of our country can move beyond mere subsistence,” she wrote. “That day has not yet come.”