Leymah R. Gbowee is a peace activist and women’s rights advocate.
Leymah played a pivotal role in implementing nonviolent strategies to end the civil war in Liberia, and promote peace throughout Africa. Leymah recalls clearly the day the first Liberian civil war came to her doorstep. “All of a sudden one July morning I wake up at 17, going to the university to fulfill my dream of becoming a medical doctor, and fighting erupted.” The war had thrust Leymah into adulthood. She later trained as a trauma counselor to treat former child soldiers. Inspired by her experience, Leymah attended Eastern Mennonite University and earned her master’s degree in conflict transformation.
The second civil war brought systematic rape and brutality to an already war-weary Liberia. As a result, she mobilized an interreligious coalition of Christian and Muslim women and organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement. Dressed in white, thousands of women staged pray-ins and nonviolent protests demanding reconciliation and the resuscitation of high-level peace talks. The pressure pushed Charles Taylor into exile, and smoothed the path for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, fellow 2011 Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Documenting these efforts in the Tribeca Film Festival 2008 Best Documentary winner Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Leymah demonstrated the power of social cohesion and relationship-building in the face of political unrest and social turmoil.
Leymah continued to build women’s agency in fighting for sustainable peace. She is a founding member and former coordinator for Women in Peacebuilding/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). Leymah co-founded the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa) to promote cross-national peace-building efforts. As its Executive Director, Leymah pushed for greater inclusion of women as leaders and agents of change in Africa. She helped transform women’s participation as victims in the crucible of war to mobilized armies for peace.
Focused on sustaining peace, Leymah continued working on behalf of grassroots efforts in her leadership positions. She served as a member of both the African Feminist Forum and the African Women’s Leadership Network on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and as a commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In November 2011, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked Leymah to head the Liberia Reconciliation Initiative. She is the founder and current president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, an organization which promotes and facilitates activities and initiatives to advance peace and reconciliation through the holistic participation of local communities. Throughout these positions, Leymah addresses the acute vulnerability of women and children in war-torn societies.
Leymah travels internationally to speak frankly about the pernicious and devastatingly effects of war and gender-based violence. She has been featured on Charlie Rose, The Colbert Report and Amanpour on CNN International. She was a panelist at several regional and international conferences, including UNIFEM’s “Women and the Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation (DDRR) Process,” the Women in the World Summit, and the United Nations Security Council’s Arria Formula Meeting on women, peace and security. When asked how she first found the courage to become a peace activist, Leymah explained:
When you’ve lived true fear for so long, you have nothing to be afraid of. I tell people I was 17 when the war started in Liberia. I was 31 when we started protesting. I have taken enough dosage of fear that I have gotten immune to fear.
She has received numerous honors highlighting her contributions in nonviolent peace-building efforts. She is a recipient of the
• 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Joint-Winner
• 2011 Alumna of the Year, Eastern Mennonite University
• 2011 Villanova Peace Award from Villanova University
• 2010 John Jay Medal for Justice from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice
• 2010 Joli Humanitarian Award from Riverdale Country School
• 2010 Living Legends Award for Service to Humanity
• 2009 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award
• 2009 Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights
• 2008 Women’s eNews Leaders for the 21st Century Award
• 2007 Blue Ribbon for Peace from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University
Leymah is the author of Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. She lives in Ghana, and is the proud mother of six children.
Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War
Women Peace and Security Network Africa
Areas of Expertise
Peace & Security, Girls and women, Sexuality and Reproductive Health