The first time I heard Leymah Gbowee speak was at the 2010 Daily Beast Women in the World event in New York City. I was familiar with her from her history-changing role in the Liberian civil war, documented in Abigail Disney's documentary, Pray The Devil Back to Hell. I then had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Gbowee at the Omega Women's Institute Women and Power conference. We talked in depth about her work to secure the reproductive and sexual rights of African women.
Pointing out the intrinsic link between women's health and on-the-ground conflict, Gbowee said, "You can't talk about maternal mortality without looking at the implications of peace and conflict." She correlated how countries with the highest negative statistics have sustained civil wars. Liberia has 994 maternal deaths per every 100,000 births -- one of the worst rates in the world. These dismal figures have given Gbowee a "new sense of purpose."
Her current portfolio extends beyond just reproductive rights -- terminology which in Gbowee's estimation "side-steps critical issues." For her, it boils down to "not owning your own body as an African women," and she is straightforward about what she acknowledged as a prevalent problem -- "harmful traditional practices." She asked rhetorically, "How do we address the chiefs on FGM?" Reflecting on the need to "sit down with these men," Gbowee said, "We haven't yet taken big, deep steps on [female genital mutilation] because we are from a highly traditional, cultural background." She added, "The message on FGM has to be refined so that you don't offend your mothers, your grandmothers -- because they are all believers in this practice, even if they went to school." Reiterating that people's traditional values are part of their identity, Gbowee was emphatic about the importance of how messages are structured so that "people don't think you are attacking them." Pragmatically, she has no illusions about the fact that taking on the FGM matter is a "huge thing to confront."
Gbowee discussed the importance of continuing the prevalence of women's leadership roles after President Ellen Sirleaf steps down. Commenting on the challenges of a post-conflict society, Gbowee insisted, "The same efforts we put into sensitizing people into ending violence, we need to put into the renewed form of democracy -- and I think that is where we failed." She explained, "Communities are groping in the dark, because they have never functioned in a functional society. We have a whole generation of people who have only known war. They are used to chaos because that is the only language that they understand. Our role as activists and advocates is to really show them how to function." After pausing a moment, she reflected, "It's overwhelming. There's so much to do."
In Gbowee's estimation, American women also have challenges that need to be addressed. This topic came up in response to our conversation about CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women), and the inability for the agreement to get national traction. She referenced the disadvantages that come from not signing the international treaty. Totally frank in her assessment questioning America's ability to provide cogent leadership on women's issues, Gbowee pointed to matters that leaders "don't want to tackle." She said, "If a president or secretary of state is standing up and making statements about the rapes in Congo, and that same country has not signed a document that is so important to the lives of their women -- what other name do you give it but hypocrisy?"
Part of our exchange included how important it was for those working to help women under siege to truly engage in an equal dialogue. "There is a need to speak to the women of these countries," Gbowee said. She told me a story about a trip she had taken to Congo where she had spoken with women on the ground and learned that for them "rape was at the bottom of the list." At the top was "political participation." For those women, "rape is a symptom of an actual issue." She continued, "We want to help. But we need to step out of our donor-driven issues and step into what it is that these communities actually want." On Afghanistan she articulated, "We need to say to the women of Afghanistan, 'What is your opinion? How is it [the troops] affecting you? What added value is it bringing? What are the disadvantages?'" Gbowee added with crystal honesty, "It's not good enough to sit in a Hilton or a Sheraton talking about Afghanistan's issues."
Trying to get a handle on the pervasive brutality against women, I asked Gbowee what she thought was at the root of such systemic violence. After a thoughtful pause, she answered, "You ask, 'Why is it this way?' I think it is all part of the power dynamics that are affiliated with patriarchy. Let's maintain this status, this way of life."
Elaborating on this train of thought she offered,
"If the leaders of the world were truly committed to women's issues and were making those issues political issues -- putting sanctions on countries that were doing nothing about honor killings, femicides and all of these things... It would bring it to an end. But this is the structure and system of power.
If President Obama stood up and made a solid statement about domestic violence in this country [United States], people would sit up. If he went to the U.N. and made a statement about the abuses of women across the world and just added some sanctions to it -- people would sit up. But it's all about the dynamics of power in my opinion."
She concluded with the pithy observation, "In order to empower people, someone is going to have to give up some power."
Photo Courtesy of Michael Angelo/Wonderland
This article originally on Women News Network.