Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace (2003 - 2005)
In 2000, Liberia’s second civil war broke out. Liberian President Charles Taylor and his military forces, who had taken over Liberia in 1989 during the first civil war, experienced attacks from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). LURD consisted of various anti-Taylor militant groups led by warlord’s intent on expelling Taylor because he denied the rebels roles in his government. By 2002, over 200,000 individuals had died in the conflict. In 2003, another anti-Taylor rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), joined the fight to rid Liberia of the Taylor regime. The war between these rebel groups and Taylor’s army, the anti-terrorist unit, led to the deaths of many soldiers and civilians. As the war waged throughout the countryside, soldiers on both sides of the conflict looted and burned villages, raped women, and recruited young boys to fight. Thousands of individuals fled their homes and made their way to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where they lived in camps without much food or drinking water.
In reaction to the conflict, social worker Leymah Gbowee decided to bring women from her church together to protest the war. First appealing to the Lutheran Church to which she belonged, Gbowee recruited several hundred Christian women to pray for peace. At on of their meetings in March 2003, a Muslim, Asatu Bah Kenneth, spoke to the crowd and proclaimed that she would bring Muslim women to join with the Christian women in demanding peace from the president and the warlords.
On April 1, the group of Christian and Muslim women staged their first protest. Using the radio to spread the word, Gbowee and Janet Johnson Bryant, a journalist, encouraged the women of Monrovia to speak out for peace. Hearing their call on the radio, many internally displaced women joined the campaign as well. Wearing all white clothing the women gathered at the fish market every day for a week. They sat, danced, and sang for peace. Some held banners that read, “The women of Liberia want peace now.”
Their location at the fish market was a strategic one, as the land was visible from President Taylor’s residence. Every day, Taylor’s motorcade passed the women. As the week went on, over 2,500 women gathered on the market lawn. They agreed that they would go on a sex strike, denying their partners intimacy until the war had ended. Seeing that men were the perpetrators of the violence, the Liberian women felt that if they were to withhold sex, their partners would also pray for peace and support an end to the war.
That week, rebel forces along with Taylor’s army attacked the displacement camps in Monrovia. The Liberian women held a candlelight vigil to pray for those in the camps. As the violence escalated, the international community called for peace talks. The women seconded the call, urging Taylor and the rebels to attend a peace talk. Both sides refused.
On April 11, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, as they had named themselves, issued a “Position Statement on the Liberian Crisis.” Staying outside the political realm for fear of persecution, the women stated their goal as simply being that of peace. They erected a billboard at the fish market, which read, “The women of Liberia say peace is our goal, peace is what matters, peace is what we need.”
Bearing this message, the women marched through the streets of Monrovia, while hundreds more joined the back of the group as it marched passed their homes. Their march concluded at Monrovia’s Municipal Office where the women assembled, demanding a meeting with Taylor to present him with their position statement. By this point over 1,000 women had gathered. Their demonstrations were successful and Taylor agreed to a meeting.
On April 23, the women visited Taylor. Gbowee presented him with the statement onstage while the rest of the women sat in the audience, holding hands and praying. After the meeting, Taylor agreed that he would attend the peace talks.
Next the group targeted the rebels, demanding that they too agree to attend the peace talks. Upon hearing that the warlords would be meeting in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a contingent of the women traveled to the city. Locating the hotel where the rebel leaders were gathered, some of the Liberian women lined the streets while others sat in front of the hotel, refusing to leave until they were given a meeting with the warlords. Their sit-in brought media attention, helping to further spread their message of peace to the international community. The women soon met the leaders of LURD and MODEL and convinced them to attend the peace talks.
In order to keep the pressure on the rebels and the President to reach a settlement, the women raised money to send a group to Accra, Ghana, where the peace talks were to be held.
On June 4, the peace talks began. The women who had traveled from Liberia gathered on the lawn out front of the peace building, singing and holding signs. At the first meeting Taylor was indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone. In order to escape arrest, he fled back to Liberia.
Soon after his fleeing, a full-scale war broke out in Monrovia while the peace talks continued in Ghana. Civilians who felt unsafe were told to go to the football field and thousands sought refuge there. Despite the attacks on Monrovia, the women who had not gone to Ghana continued to pray at the fish market.
On July 21, the violence in Monrovia escalated as a missile hit the American embassy compound, killing many displaced Liberians who were sheltered there. The women in Ghana sent for reinforcements, planning to stage a major action in Accra. They went to the doors of the building where the negotiations were taking place and sat down, linking arms. They surrounded the building and refused to let the delegates leave until a settlement was made.
When the guards came to arrest the women, Gbowee threatened to remove her clothing, an act that would be offensive to the men there. Her threat prevented security from removing the women. The Ghanaian president, the chief mediator of the peace talks, agreed to meet with the women and hear their pleas for peace, provided they remove themselves from outside the negotiating building. The women agreed to do so on the condition that if the meeting were unsatisfactory they would be allowed to return to the building.
Three weeks later on August 11, Taylor resigned from the presidency and the terms for the peace agreement were announced. Taylor was exiled to Nigeria, UN Peacekeeping forces (UNMIL) were ordered to enter Monrovia, and a transitional government was put in place to begin the process of holding democratic elections. With the settlement agreed to, the Liberian women returned to their country. Upon arriving they held a march of victory. Hundreds of children followed the women through the streets shouting, “We want peace, no more war!”
On August 4, international peacekeeping troops entered Liberia. The women gathered together and decided that they would have to stay involved to ensure that the transitional government implemented the peace agreement.
In December, UNMIL began the disarmament process, urging ex-combatants to surrender their weapons for cash. Hundreds of individuals with guns converged on the disarmament location. Though the event was expected to be peaceful, a small fight broke out and guns were used. The Liberian women intervened, putting out a radio address that encouraged the ex-combatants to remain calm.
Over the next two years, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace group aided the government in bringing about democratic elections. They registered voters and set up polling stations. On November 23, 2005, the Liberian people elected their country’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Upon the election, the Liberian women for peace officially concluded their mass action campaign and ended their gatherings at the fish market. They succeeded in ending their country’s civil war and brought peace to their nation by supporting the democratic elections.
June 19, 2009 episode of Bill Moyers Journal, featuring interviews with Leymah Gbowee, and Abigail Disney - producer of the documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell.