Since women make up half the world population, peace processes without them is “like trying to see with one eye covered,” said Leymah Gbowee, Founder and President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, at the International Peace Institute on March 11.
Ms. Gbowee won the award after leading the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which brought together Christian and Muslim women in a nonviolent movement that played a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s civil war in 2003. The movement is chronicled in the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”
The acclaimed Liberian peace activist expressed frustration that the international community continues to exclude women from official negotiations. She said organizers of peace talks often cite a shortage of qualified women or claim that certain “cultural practices” make it too complicated to include women. She complained that some think that because women usually do not take up arms, they should not be considered parties to the conflict.
She argued that since women suffer the greatest amount of violence during wartime—including rape, starvation and displacement—excluding them is both ineffective and offensive. “If we are the ones who bear the greatest brunt of the war, my point is why can’t the world recognize that we are also parties to the conflict?” she asked.
As the ones “holding communities together,” women have a nuanced understanding of combatants’ grievances and where arms are hidden, she explained. Also, women bring the “human dimension” of conflict to the table at a time when negotiations narrowly focus on political power and jobs. This helps address issues of reconciliation and justice, she said. Otherwise, she added, “no one is thinking about how children have been killed.”
Until the world recognizes that women can make crucial contributions to peacemaking, she argued, we will continue to see one-size-fits-all peace agreements fall short. Still, women are kept out, she lamented, noting as one recent example that women were refused official representation at the Geneva II talks, which aimed to end the civil war in Syria.
“The Syrian peace process will continue to fail unless women are brought to the table,” she said.
Political Rules in Africa: No Prophetess of Doom
Women leaders in Africa—such as the presidents of Central African Republic, Malawi and Liberia—provide great inspiration for African women, said Ms. Gbowee. But, she added, politics in Africa are still male-dominated.
“People think that because we have a woman president, it’s a magic wand, women’s rights will be respected,” she noted. But that is not the case in large part because parliaments—and by extension policies, rules and laws—are still controlled by men, she contended. “Presidents by themselves have to play by the rules of politics, and the political rules will always be that the men will drive the game,” she said.
Prompted by a question from the audience, Ms. Gbowee admitted that lately she has begun to see cracks in the women’s movement in Africa, threatening the strong sense of solidarity that was prominent across the continent. This stems from the fact that individuals view leading a peace movement as a way of attracting accolades, she explained, leading to “fierce competition” and distrust.
She told how on a recent trip to South Sudan antagonism arose among women activists. The talks went great, she said, until it came time to pick a leader, at which point the conversation broke down. “What is the color of peace?” she said she asked the participants. “What is the political party of peace?”
Decrying this level of suspicion and distrust among women, Ms. Gbowee used a saying from Liberia: “I don’t want to hide my nakedness from my bath bucket.”
“I’m not a prophetess of doom,” she said but went on to warn that the progress made on women’s rights in Africa in the last years were in danger of sliding backwards. “It’s time for us to wake up, and it’s time for us to wake up very fast,” she concluded.
The event was moderated by Maureen Quinn, Director of Programs at IPI.