How Women Ended Liberia’s Civil War: Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Cindy Barbosa

By 2003, the Liberian Civil War had been raging for 14 years, over 200,000 people had died and one in three people had been displaced.[1] Originally founded in 1822, Liberia began as a colony for emancipated American slaves. It was a relatively stable oligarchy until the late 1900s when corruption and economic disparity culminated into the decade long violence inflicted upon the people of Liberia.[2] On Christmas Eve of 1989, the first civil war broke out when Liberia was overtaken by Charles Taylor and his military forces, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, beginning his bloody rise to power.[3] The violence subsided in 1997 when Charles Taylor became president, but little changed under his rule, and in 1999 war broke out a second time, this time marked by a widespread increase of violence and brutality.[4] The opposition was the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), an anti-Taylor faction that consisted of militant groups led by warlords who had not been appointed into Taylor’s government.[5] The bulk of these groups consisted of young men and boys often armed and active in combat; the UN estimates approximately 15,000 children were involved in the fighting.[6] As the war raged, armed bands of rebels and child-soldiers roamed the countryside, looting, burning villages, committing mass murders and rape. Constant fear constituted life in Liberia, “those who were not brutally murdered experienced and/or witnessed unimaginable acts of sexual brutality, mutilation, cannibalism, and torture.”[7]

A group of people sitting wearing pink bandanas on their head and holding rifles.
Young soldiers of a militant faction sit in the back of a pickup truck in Monrovia, Liberia on July 20, 2003 on their way to the frontline to fight against the rebels.[8]

Throughout the entirety of the conflict, women were disproportionately targets of gender-based violence, severely subjected to sexual assault when groups of militants arrived in their villages; mothers in particular were often targeted as objects of attack.[9] In government conducted surveys in 2005 and 2006, 1,600 women were interviewed, covering 10 of Liberia’s 15 counties, indicating that 92% of the women had experienced sexual violence.[10] Rape was used as “a weapon of war.” Additionally, the idea of mothers being foundational and “custodians of society” is shared among many African cultures.[12] Therefore, “in targeting the maternal body, these fighters not only violated individual women and children but assaulted the very foundations of Liberian society and culture.”[13] However, despite what their bodies, children, and lives had suffered, it was the women of Liberia who ultimately brought an end to a war that had no end in sight.

A group of women wearing white and holding protest signs.
WLAMP, ‘The Women in White’[20]

In 2002, Leymah Gbowee, a mother of five young children struggling to survive, decided to bring women from her church together to pray for peace, successfully recruiting several hundred to protest the war, and uniting other congregations of all denominations.[14] Soon, women throughout the community began holding prayer groups, dialogues, and healing circles.[15] News of Gbowee’s growing initiative spread to Liberia’s Muslim population when, inspired, Asatu Bah Kenneth, a Muslim policewoman, stood up in front of the Christian congregation during Sunday service declaring that “We’re all serving the same God… I want to promise you all today that I’m going to move it forward with the Muslim women.”[16] With some pushback, Gbowee and Kenneth were able to mobilize the women of Liberia’s Christian and Islamic communities into one united movement, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace (WLMAP), a resounding message ringing clear: “Can a bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?”[17]

Women in white protest at the side of a street opposite a tank.
WLAMP protest in Monrovia.[25]

The women pressured their religious leaders, pastors, bishops, and imams alike, who in turn would pressure the warlords, constantly engaging them in dialogue, affirming that “today, we [the women of Liberia] are breaking the silence.”[18] The war was becoming worse. WLAMP began organizing a protest, spreading the word through radio, their message encouraging the women of Liberia to stand up for peace. Over 2,500 women gathered every day at a fish market, strategically located where Taylor would encounter them. They prayed, danced, chanted and sang, holding signs that read “The women of Liberia want peace now.”[19] It was the first time in Liberian history where Muslim and Christian women had united together in such powerful forces. Taylor threatened them in his public addresses, but they were determined and prepared to die fighting for peace. They collectively agreed to have a sex strike until the war ended, denying what was in their power, and, in turn, their partners also prayed and supported an end to the war.[21] After an attack by rebel forces on a displacement camp in the capital, Monrovia, with Taylor still refusing to come to the peace table, WLMAP decided to go to parliament. They presented a “Position Statement on the Liberian Crisis” on behalf of the women of Liberia, signing their names, and stating that their goal was simply peace, staying outside political rhetoric for fear of persecution.[22]

A piece of paper with words on it.

Signatures on a piece of paper.
“Women of Liberia Position Statement”[23]

As the women marched through the streets of Monrovia towards the Municipal Office, hundreds more joined them as they walked past homes and shelters. Over 1,000 women had gathered demanding a meeting with Taylor to present their position statement.[24] He could no longer ignore them and finally agreed to a meeting.

A man sitting on a couch.
Charles Taylor at the presentation of Leymah Gbowee’s statement.[28]

On April 23, 2003, the women sat in the audience holding hands and praying while Gbowee presented the statement. He agreed, Gbowee’s words instrumental in convincing Taylor to attend the peace talks in Accra, Ghana.[26] Next, to convince the rebels, Kenneth and a group of women were arranged to encounter them in Sierra Leone where LURD warlords were having a meeting.[27] Women lined the streets calling for peace as the rebels were about to leave their hotel. Kenneth called to them, “Your mothers have come this far to talk to you, your sisters have come this far. If you don’t go, don’t you know these people will die in Monrovia?”[29] They finally promised to attend the peace talks as well. Money was raised locally to send the women to Ghana to keep the pressure on the warlord’s. However, during the negotiations, Taylor was indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone, fleeing back to Liberia to escape arrest. Shortly after, a full-scale war broke out in Monrovia, the women in Ghana received calls from family members reporting there was no drinking water and mass graves were being dug.[30] The women who had stayed behind continued going to the fish market every morning, praying and singing through the missiles.

Women in white sitting with their backs against windows.
Women barricading the doors and windows of the conference building.[31]

In desperation, Gbowee told the women to sit and link arms by the doors of the building where negotiations were held. Frustrated and devastated, almost 200 women barricaded the exits so that no one could leave until a peace agreement was signed, even if it meant staying there for days. Mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives stood their ground as they physically stopped the men who tried to exit by pushing their backs.[32] When the guards came to arrest the women for “obstruction of justice,” Gbowee threatened to strip naked. For a mother to deliberately strip naked is considered ‘the greatest curse,’ a long-standing taboo within Liberian history and culture. She weaponized the traditional power of deliberate undressing in a threat to emasculate the men.[33]

“Gbowee’s action worked to reclaim the maternal body from the rapists; if the men responsible for the raping and killing were going to see her naked, it would be on her terms, not theirs. In threatening to bare her body publicly, Gbowee implied that she would take back the life that she, a mother of Liberia, had given to the men. Suddenly, Gbowee and the LMAP protestors were no longer targets of sexual violence. Instead, they became powerful agents who forced the men – their perpetrators – to stop their raping, looting, and killing”[34]

“What we’ve done here today is to send out a signal to the world that we, the Liberian women in Ghana, at this conference, we are fed up with the war, and we are doing this to tell the world we are tired of fighting the killing of our people. We can do it again if we want to. And next time, we will be more than 1,000. There are over 25,000 women at the Buduburam refugee camp. There are over 10,000 Liberian women living in Accra. We can do it, and we’ll do it again.”[35]

A woman in the middle of speaking.
Leymah Gbowee speaking to press at the Accra Peace Talks.[36]

Two weeks later, the terms of the agreement were announced, Taylor was to be exiled to Nigeria, a UN peace-keeping force would enter Monrovia, and a transitional government would lead to democratic elections.[37] The WLMAP continued to be involved; they wanted to send the message that they were carefully watching the implementation of the peace agreement: “Peace is a process, not an event.”[38] They campaigned continuously and on January 17, 2006, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, becoming the first country in Africa to elect a woman president.[39] Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for, “her non-violent efforts [to] promote peace and her struggle for women’s rights.”[40]

Black and white image of a woman.
Liberian Peace Activist, Leymah Gbowee.[41]

[1] Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker (Roco Films Educational, 2008), 1 hr.,12 min.

[2] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Consolidated Final Report: Volume II, (Ghana: The TRC of Liberia, 2009), 14.

[3] Kylin Navarro, “Liberian Women Act to End Civil War, 2003,” Global Nonviolent Action Database, October 22, 2010.

[4] Julie Xuan Ouellet, “Women and Religion in Liberia’s Peace and Reconciliation,” Critical Intersections in Education: An OISE/UT Students’ Journal Vol 1, No. 1 (2013): 13.

[5] Navarro, “Liberian Women Act to End Civil War.”

[6] Tony Tate, “How to Fight, How to Kill: Child Soldiers in Liberia,” Human Rights Watch, February 2, 2004.

[7] Anu Pillay, Marquee Speare, Pamela Scully. “Women’s Dialogues in Post-Conflict Liberia,” Journal of Peacebuilding & Development Vol. 5, No. 3 (2010): 90.

[8] Kuni Takahashi.

[9] Allison M. Prasch, “Maternal Bodies in Militant Protest: Leymah Gbowee and the Rhetorical Agency of African Motherhood,” Women’s Studies in Communication, 38:2 (2015): 190.

[10] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Common Humanitarian Action Plan for Liberia (New York: United Nations, 2007), 13.

[11] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Consolidated Final Report, 260.

[12] Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 32:12.

[13] Prasch, “Maternal Bodies in Militant Protest,” 190.

[14] Navarro, “Liberian Women Act to End Civil War.”

[15] Ouellet, “Women and Religion in Liberia’s Peace and Reconciliation,” 14.

[16] Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 09:30.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Navarro, “Liberian Women Act to End Civil War.”

[20] Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

[21] Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 24:43

[22] Navarro, “Liberian Women Act to End Civil War.”

[23] Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ouellet, “Women and Religion in Liberia’s Peace and Reconciliation,” 15.

[27] Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 34:00.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Prasch, “Maternal Bodies in Militant Protest,” 196-197.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 56:40.

[36] Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40]The Nobel Peace Prize 2011,”

[41] Photo by Robin Holland.