"You have to stand up, step out and work for your own peace," is the advice that Leymah Gwobee gives to women of the world. Gwobee shares the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with fellow Liberian activist, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakul Karman of Yemen.
In 2007 Karman began leading youth protests that forced Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. President Saleh had been in office the entire 32 years of Karman's life. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times called "Yemen's Unfinished Revolution," Karman points out the fragile state of her country during this time of transition and asked for the United States' support as her fellow citizens work to build a just and fair government. She writes: "On behalf of many of the young people involved in Yemen's revolution, I assure the American people that we are ready to engage in a true partnership. Together, we can eliminate the causes of extremism and the culture of terrorism by bolstering civil society and encouraging development and stability."
Development and stability have dawned in Liberia. In 2009, I traveled to Liberia as a delegate to the International Colloquium on Women's Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security co-convened by President Sirleaf and President Tarja Halonen of Finland. More than 1,000 women from throughout Africa and the world gathered on International Women's Day to discuss women's roles in advancing economic justice, ending violence, providing access to health care, promoting education, and environmental sustainability. It was a transformational experience.
My transformation, however, did not occur while sitting in sessions facilitated by the most powerful women in the world. It came from seeing the backdrop of Monrovia where the colloquium was held. Reading about Liberia's 15 years of civil war was little preparation for seeing its effects -- electricity only available during certain times, most homes without running water, limited sanitation and waste removal, and a generation of youth who did not attend school due to pervasive violence. For many young people, their only chance to survive was to become a child soldier. The atrocities they were forced to participate in were a dreadful choice over facing starvation.
It was Leymah Gbwoee in her role as a mother of six children who decided to stand up and speak out to end the war. Documented in the film "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" and illuminated in her recent book, "Mighty Be Our Powers," Gbwoee and a group of women, both Christians and Muslims, used prayer, nonviolent demonstrations, and a sex strike to force the end of the war. It was these women's activism that paved the way to elect Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
In her first term as President, Her Excellency Sirleaf achieved unparalleled success -- she convinced the IMF and World Bank to waive $4.6 billion of Liberia's debt, has attracted more than $19 billion in economic development and re-opened the nation's schools including a $30 million new campus for the University of Liberia. By fueling support for Liberia's Market Women, women are striving for economic security and its platform is used for advancing adult literacy and health education. President Sirleaf has inspired hope in the youth of Liberia and to many of us throughout the world. Liberia held its second democratic elections since the war this week resulting in a run-off.
Almost 5,000 miles from Liberia in Washington, DC, two weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Black Women's Agenda (BWA). BWA is a coalition of 43 Black women's organizations who work together collectively to educate, advance, and support progressive measures for Black women. They have a three-pronged agenda with a myriad of advocacy and direct service programs promoting education, health, and economic empowerment. At the 2011 annual meeting Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund and Elisabeth Omilami, CEO of Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless, were honored for their tireless work as advocates for children and families. Both Edelman and Omilami are laboring, like Karman, Gbwoee and President Sirleaf, during the worst times in their countries.
Edelmen's prophetic message is chilling. The United States is not in a civil war, but the current economic climate is claiming many casualties. During the luncheon she shared recently released 2010 Census Data which confirms there are 46.2 million poor people in America, the largest number in the last 52 years. One in three of America's poor are children -- 16.4 million, over 950,000 more than in 2009. More than seven million children are living in extreme poverty, while 65 percent of children living in homes below the poverty level have one parent who works. Even with a job, workers are not earning a wage that keeps them out of poverty.
Elisabeth Omilami is carrying the legacy of her parents, civil rights icons Rev. Hosea and Juanita T. Williams as CEO of Hosea Feed The Hungry and Homeless (HFTHH). Annually, HFTHH serves over 50,000 persons. Based in Atlanta, the organization provides meals, food boxes, housing/shelter, financial assistance and health care to persons living in extreme poverty and the working poor throughout Georgia, three additional states, the Philippines, the Ivory Coast and Uganda and Haiti.
What can we learn from the lives of President Sirleaf, Leymah Gbwoee, Tawakul Karman, Marian Wright Edelman and Elisabeth Omilami? The rewards of taking risks and the power of acting out of conviction are two lessons. These women are exemplars of effective leadership during the worst of times. To address the complex problems in the 21st Century, gender equity in leadership is a must. What are women's issues? Everything.