Who is Leymah Gbowee?: Background on Barnard’s 2013 Commencement Speaker

by Samantha Plotner

Since Tuesday, Barnard seniors have finally known our commencement speaker and who will be sending us out into the world: Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee. While Facebook and Twitter may have been more excited (or affronted) about the presence of Lena Dunham, I’m ecstatic that someone who has done so much to bring peace to her country will be addressing my class at Radio City Music Hall.

Leymah Gbowee will speak at
Barnard’s commencement.

First, some context on where Gbowee comes from. Liberia has suffered through two civil wars, the first of which lasted from 1989 to 1996 and resulted in over 20,000 deaths and the rise to power of Charles Taylor. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it is because last year Taylor was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes by an international judicial body, the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Taylor is often referred to as a warlord and his crimes including the use of child soldiers and terrorizing civilian populations. Opposition to his rule led to the Second Liberian Civil War in 1999 which went on until 2003.

The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a peace group founded by our commencement speaker Leymah Gbowee, was key to bringing about an end to the conflict through mass public protests, and even a sex strike. The group contributed to pressuring Charles Taylor to participate in and did all in their power to ensure their success of peace talks that would eventually end the second civil war. The protests included a staged sit-in outside the Presidential Palace in Ghana, in which participants of peace talks were not allowed to leave until they had an agreement. The group has also helped ease tensions between Muslims and Christians in Liberia, and brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the presidency. After the success of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Gbowee founded The Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa) with two other African peace activists to promote women’s activism towards peace throughout Africa. She is currently WIPSEN-Africa’s Executive Director.

“We stepped out first and did, the unimaginable… to send out a signal that we, the Liberian women, we are tired of the killing of our people. And we can do it again if we want to.”

Gbowee may not be a household name, but she should be. She saw the horrors happening in her country and mobilized women to change it. Through her work for WIPSEN-Africa she is supporting and inspiring women all across Africa to do what she and her countrywomen did for Liberia. She is a living example of the power of women’s leadership and someone whose courage and dedication to peace can be an example for us all. For these reasons, she is an outstanding choice for 2013 commencement speaker.

To learn more about Leymah Gbowee you can watch the entire PBS documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell online or read an excerpt from her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War.

Samantha Plotner is a senior at Barnard and Senior Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Image courtesy of Ted Talks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s