When the announcement was made that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would be given to three women, including Leymah Gbowee (pronounced LAY-muh BO-wee), some Jews were particularly proud.
Gbowee, an extraordinary Liberian activist and founder of Women Peace and Security Network-Africa (WIPSEN), who has been influential in mobilizing women for peace and bringing democracy to Liberia, has credited the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) with being one of the first organizations to believe in and to provide financial support for her work.
“AJWS is a name I will remember”, she said recently at an AJWS event. “It is an organization with a heart and a soul. I mean it – and I don’t take my words lightly.”
Ruth Messinger, AJWS’s president and CEO, says she first met Gbowee in 2003 at a breakfast in Ethiopia.
“She told us about her work training women to take control over their futures, “ Messinger told The Sisterhood, “and when she proposed copying her model in other parts of Africa, we decided to support her. We want her to spread her work.”
Gbowee’s work is indeed remarkable. The 39-year-old mother of six had not planned a career in peace-making and women’s empowerment. But the 14 year civil war in Liberia under the ruthless dictator Charles Taylor that had taken 200,000 lives by 2002 took a particularly tragic toll on women — gang rapes became part of everyday life, and warlords would rampage villages to forcibly “recruit” male children as soldiers. It propelled her to action. Gbowee writes in her memoir, “Mighty be Our Powers,” that after having a vivid dream telling her to gather the women, she went to her church and indeed rallied up the women, most of whom were poor farmers, fishmongers and peddlers.
These market women had few resources other than their vast numbers and their bodies. The women, dressed in a “uniform” of simple white scarves and t-shirts, took to the streets to cajole the warring men to give up their fight. They linked arms outside a boardroom where peace negotiations were stalled and threatened to strip naked if the war wasn’t ended (in Africa it’s considered a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman naked). Gbowee’s “troops,” as the warring generals dubbed her, also used one other tool: the sex strike. In an echo of Aristophanes’ classic Greek drama “Lysistrata,” they withheld sex until the men put down their guns. The women’s motto was: no peace, no sex.