More Than a Conference: Liberation, Leadership, and Liberia

04/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Monrovia, Liberia, March 7, 2009. The "International Colloquium on Women's Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security 2009" is about to get started. Presidents Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia) - The first woman president in Africa! - and Tarja Halonen (Finland) are hosting us. It's International Women's day tomorrow. This is a good place to spend it. Even sitting in my warm clothes from cold USA weather (luggage still in transit) and a bit sticky in this tropical weather, I'm nonetheless excited, expectant and hopeful for the two days ahead. About 500 of us are sitting in the middle of the sunny football field. There is no convention hall in Monrovia - this stadium works well, has nice rooms for breakout sessions and safety barriers to protect the four Heads of State here. We don't notice the distant empty stadium seats surrounding us. We're enjoying the shade created by the attractive thatched roof of palm leaves with bamboo poles - creating an "open air tent," the plastic chairs are comfortable, the music is fun. We're waiting for the Heads of State to arrive. One organizer tells us that there were no tents big enough in Liberia for this event - it was a woman's ingenuity that came up with our protective and sweet smelling roof of palm leaves. By the end of this colloquium, I realize not much stops Liberian woman and the good men that work by their side.

The four themes of the colloquium are; UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (which addresses the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women and recognized women's unique role in conflict resolution and peacemaking), Women's Leadership, Economic Empowerment, Climate Change, Migration and Millennium Development Goal 3 (Promoting gender equality and empowering women).

Liberia is a very, very poor country that has been through awful conflict until 2005 when President Johnson-Sirleaf was elected. Women here played a key role in bringing about that peace. Many women were also a part of the conflict. They became soldiers; often after being abducted and raped, they took up weapons to protect themselves and being a soldier was safer than being a victim. Rape was a huge weapon in this conflict - the stories are horrid.

But this conference is about the future. It is about moving on - being part of the world. The slogans and the songs were about LIBERIAN WOMAN BEING STRONG, LIBERIA BEING STRONG AND BECOMING AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE WORLD. It is about Liberians bringing their country to health and prosperity. President Johnson-Sirleaf asked us all there to find ways to work together for the exchange of knowledge and understanding. She said, "We believe that working to establish and maintain universal peace and providing to women the means to participate fully in the development and upkeep of viable structures for the benefit of all are long overdue. ...We want to hear your stories, we want to exchange ideas with you and we want to tell you our stories".

I was reminded of the 1995 women's conference in Beijing. It was much larger and hotter and there was more chaos - but it too moved agendas, hearts, minds and it ushered in new change for women and their families. One of the first International Women's Day celebrations in 1911 took the form of a series of marches and strikes that spread across Europe like wildfire working for women's rights.
Too many people shake off "conferences" as just a lot of talk. But the right ones are about creating change in the world. I close with a quote from Juanita Brown in "The World Café":...there's a wisdom that emerges as we get more and more connected with each other... separate ideas ... become connected to each other, life surprises us... the sudden appearance of new capacity and intelligence .. emerges." It happened in Liberia.

I'll write more about this provocative gathering in the weeks ahead and what I think it accomplished and will accomplish.