Who are these incredible women recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? Women, War & Peace‘s October 18 episode, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” provides insight into the struggle that brought two of them — Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and activist Leymah Gbowee — to the Nobel podium.
The First Liberian Civil War was launched by Charles Taylor’s invasion in 1989, eight years before he would force his way into the presidency. He earned his title as a warlord by ravaging the countryside and using child soldiers to do his bloody bidding. Ultimately, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy would stand up to fight against him, but their war-hungry actions only blurred against Taylor’s army, and Liberians were left defenseless and terrorized.
Women who survived this period tell tales of rape and destruction, their lives constantly shadowed by fear. Leymah Gbowee — who can now add “Nobel Peace Prize Award Winner” to her humble “Social Worker” movie credit, and who also recently published her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (read an excerpt here) — decided that change must come from the women. She mobilized women from Christian churches and then asked Muslim women to do the same. Shattering religious boundaries, the ultimate goal of peace was more important than how they worshiped. They hoped that their efforts would encourage their religious leaders to pressure the warlords to halt their terrorism, but the men did nothing.
In 2003, villages were forced into camps, and people lived in squalor and fear. The women shifted their efforts to take peace into their own hands and gathered wearing white in the fish market, holding signs and banners demanding peace from their president. They even instituted a sex strike with their husbands. Again, they were ignored (though the husbands prayed very hard).
When Liberian leaders traveled to Ghana for international peace talks, Gbowee followed with a group from the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. After six weeks, the talks become a joke of lush hotel rooms and under the table wheeling and dealing, and the women become fed up with the lack of action while their friends and family members back home died in senseless slayings. Attendees even begin to nonchalantly whistle the tune of their protest songs, unaware of the lyrics, “We want peace, no more war.” Gbowee takes matters into her own hands, forcing the leaders to talk and acknowledge their pain and suffering.
Gbowee’s story is a startling demonstration of the power of grassroots efforts to change a nation. Bonded by the exhaustion created from a lifetime of war, the women sang and protested until their voices were finally heard, and then sang and protested some more. Their actions seem deceptively simple, but the bravery to tirelessly fight for a better life creates no small force. Director Gini Reticker gathers women of the movement to reflect on their experiences, providing moving accounts of lives no one should have to survive. Not only did they survive, but they now embody hope for those in desperation and the remarkable power to overcome for those who cannot visualize a better future. These women created their own future.
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