*The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to three influential women from Africa and the Middle East who have worked tirelessly to expand the rights of women living in conservative, male-dominated societies.
The recipients are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first woman to be elected president in post-colonial Africa; Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkol Karman, a fixture in the forefront of her country’s populist revolt this year, and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized women across ethnic and religious lines to help end war in Liberia and ensure women’s participation in nationwide elections – all through non-violent protest.
“There were times that I felt like we were never going to win. Nonviolence protest is one of the greatest, or the strongest act that anyone can go through,” Gbowee told us in August during a panel for the PBS documentary “Women, War & Peace,” which includes Gbowee’s story in its five-part series beginning Tuesday.
“It’s easy to pick a gun or pick a knife and stab someone or shoot someone. But to use your body, your conscience, your words to confront evil is the most difficult thing,” Gbowee continued. “And the more we protested, especially when the peace talks were on and then the ceasefire broke down, I started losing confidence in the effectiveness of nonviolence. Thankfully, we had a whole group of women who understood that it was with time that we would succeed. And those were the people who really held me up as the leader of the group.”
Part two of “Women, War & Peace,” titled “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” recounts how Gbowee, in 2003, organized thousands of ordinary women – mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters, both Christian and Muslim – to literally stand between opposing factions in Liberia’s brutal civil war under dictator Charles Taylor. [Scroll down to view clips.]
One particular moment in the broadcast shows how the women – all dressed in white t-shirts – barricaded the site of stalled peace talks in Ghana and refused to budge until a deal was reached. Their protests would eventually lead to Taylor’s exile and the rise of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Gbowee’s leadership has empowered women and transformed gender relations in Liberia, but the new freedoms cannot erase the physical and psychological damage of rape, brutal amputations and other heinous acts done to women during Liberia’s war. With the international community’s priorities elsewhere, Gbowee says the women have turned to each other for healing.
“We did something we called shedding off the weight, where women would gather and just tell their experiences, talk about the rape that they experienced or the death of somebody,” she said. “Because one of the things we realized, even as we did the protest, there were times that some of the women would go into the field, encounter some of the killers of their children, and they would come back and just snap. It would just be tears and really difficult for them to function for several days. So we would get together, sit down, and just tell our stories to ourselves.
“Our children, we see them die from hunger, from everything. But we do not have a space to tell our pain because we’re supposed to be strong for communities. So [this is] the way we decided to help — and personally it’s helped me. It helped get rid of some of the anger I carried from 17 up until 30-something when I sat in that circle with a group of women to tell my story.”
“Women, War & Peace” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. from Oct. 11 through Nov. 8. Gbowee’s story is chronicled in in part 2, titled “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” premiering Oct. 18. [Watch a clip below, and scroll down for information on the other stories in the series.]
The other films in the “Women, War & Peace” series:
I Came to Testify
The moving story of how a group of 16 women who had been imprisoned and raped by Serb-led forces in the Bosnian town of Foca broke history’s great silence – and stepped forward to take the witness stand in an international court of law.
Three women in Afghanistan are risking their lives to make sure women’s rights don’t get traded away in peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The War We Are Living
In Cauca, a mountainous region in Colombia’s Pacific southwest, two extraordinary Afro-Colombian women are braving a violent struggle over their gold-rich lands.
The capstone of Women, War & Peace challenges the conventional wisdom that war and peace are men’s domain through incisive interviews with leading thinkers, Secretaries of State and seasoned survivors of war and peace-making. [See clip below.]