Who said sex and politics don't mix? Led by Leymah Gbowee, a young mother, Liberian women went on a sex strike to end the country's brutal civil war. They were successful: in 2003 warlords agreed to end the violence. Last year Gbowee won a Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign. With Liberia's former President, Charles Taylor, facing life in jail after his war crimes trial The Hague, Metro spoke with Gbowee.
Charles Taylor is the first-ever head of state to be convicted for war crimes. Do you feel vindicated?
When someone has been terrorizing communities, and your community has been violated, of course you're relieved if he's convicted. It doesn't matter that Taylor has been convicted for war crimes he committed in Sierra Leone, not Liberia. We've waited for a long time, so we're happy. There's a sense that justice has finally been served, and that Taylor will pay for his crime. And he's not coming back to our community!
Are sex strikes an effective strategy to end wars?
(Laughs) It's effective in the sense that it gets people's attention. Sex is an exotic thing, and many people would say it's a taboo subject. But when someone dares to bring it to the attention of the public, it has two results. People start saying, "who's this person doing this?" and they start asking why the person is using sex to highlight an issue. And it gets men thinking. There are a lot of good men out there! The percentage of men who wage war is very small. Good men outnumber evil men, but why are they silent? Our strategy helps the good men because it gives them a reason to take action. They start talking to their colleagues and beer buddies, saying "this war is wrong."
So it's not the sex strike per se, but the support it gives good men, that makes it an effective strategy?
Yes. Every man is interested in the act of sex. We withheld sex from our spouses to get attention, and our husbands obviously noticed what we were doing. We said, "we need you to take a stand." And they did.
Would you recommend sex strikes to women in other war-torn countries?
People have told me many times, "why don't you export your strategy to this or that country that's also in the midst of a civil war?" But it's not as easy as that. I can't just go to a country and tell women how to make peace. I can encourage them, but they have to commit to peace and they have to do so beyond their political and ethnic affiliations. Regardless of whether you're Muslim or Christian, and regardless of which ethnic group you belong to, there's no way that we can solve a crisis without moving beyond such affiliations.
Liberia's civil war was extremely brutal, with one President Samuel Doe being tortured to death on videocamera. How many other Liberian war criminals are there who should also face justice?
That's the biggest debate in Liberia right now. Since Taylor's conviction there has been a lot of discussion about the role former warlords still play in Liberia. In the case of Prince Johnson, the warlord who killed Doe, people are saying that he, too, should be brought to justice. The whole issue of justice has to be looked at in Liberia. We need to start the conversation about people's role in the Liberian civil war and what should be done with them. Another issue we have to think about is whether this is the right time to start prosecuting war criminals, which we obviously haven't done yet. What I can is that there's no way Liberia will be a whole and healthy society if we don't address the issue of justice.
Prince Johnson has since been a member of parliament in Liberia and placed third in last year's presidential elections. Isn't that sickening?
It is. The difference in African politics versus politics in the West is that people tend to rally around their identity. Liberia is no exception. Some people, including myself, don't want a person who committed some of the worst atrocities in our civil war as a member of parliament, but if you ask the people of his tribe, they see him as a hero. Every warlord is a hero in the eyes of his own group.
If that's the case, what's the way forward?
We Liberians are in a state of denial. We have a very dark past, and we tend to pretend that someone will wave a magic wand and live will be ok for all of us again. That's not possible! Until we can really sit down and stare evil in the face, we'll continue to worry about the state of our country and whether we'll go back to war. We'll spend the next 20 years worrying about a new civil war unless we wake up and address our past.
So you think Liberia is at risk of sliding back into civil war again?
Not for the next 20-30 years. The memories and pains of the last war are still fresh in people's minds. But in 30 years we'll have a whole new generation of Liberians for whom the whole concept of war will be new and strange, and that's a risk. But this generation -- no. I'm certain we'll see more tensions and riots, but not a full-fledged war.
Speaking of warlords, Joseph Kony has been on the run for years, but only now is the world paying attention -- thanks to a YouTube clip. Does that make you cynical?
Very cynical. It tells you what a crazy world we live in. There are so many young girls and boys who're victims of Kony's atrocities, but at no point in time have people paid any attention to them. Why are people focusing on Kony when we haven't done justice to the victims of this war?
Madeleine Albright likes to say that the world wouldn't be a better place if women were in charge -- it would be like high school all over again. Do you agree?
It would be a much better place than it's now. Are all men bad? No. But I think when it comes to world politics, women bring something uniquely different to the table. Men often have values and principles, but politics tends to override them. When you believe firmly in things, you can achieve changes. Politics isn't a popularity contest; it's about achieving lasting changes. That's what women are good at.
The Nobel Peace Prize can be a blessing -- as in the case of Mother Theresa -- or a curse, as in the case of Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Which has it been for you?
For me it's a gift from God. Every good and perfect gift comes from God. I come from a very humble background, and I'd never have thought that something like this could come my way. So, I'm very grateful for God's grace, and I can never refer to any gift from God as a curse.
What does your husband think of your withholding sex?
Fortunately when we did the sex strike I didn't have a husband. But the interesting thing is, many of the husbands of the women in the sex strike actually helped us. They'd drive their wives to the meetings, then wait downstairs while we planned our actions. Sometimes they'd have to wait for hours! That's ironic, isn't it? These were very difficult times. The husbands would do the same thing for us every day: wait while he had our meetings, then drive us all home, without knowing what we were planning. They were very good men.