This article will feature in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

In 1847 Liberia became the first African republic and one of two countries that remained independent of European colonial rule on the continent. The founding of Liberia can be traced back to the financial support of a private American organisation known as the American Colonization Society which was responsible for helping establish the young nation. As a result, Liberia became the second independent black country founded by former slaves, following Haiti in 1804. In time, Liberia developed a stable political economy and was a beacon of hope for suppressed Blacks around the world. This was an irony in itself for anyone remotely familiar with Liberian society. The country was plagued by deep-rooted class discriminations between the descendants of former slave settlers and the indigenous ethnic groups. Black settlers from the United States culturally influenced by race relations in slave-America evoked the same techniques of direct disenfranchisement on indigenous groups. This would later become the catalyst for conflict. As a result, 1990 was the beginning of the Liberian Civil War which threatened the security of the entire West African sub-region. 2003 brought an end to decades of civil unrest. The war coming to an end is largely attributed to the grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, female zoes (traditional chiefs), and market women who banded together to form the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace campaign. 

Peace Studies as an academic discipline began in the aftermath of World War II. As in most fields, the study was shaped by the ideology and recorded contributions of men. However, the changing landscape of women’s peacebuilding roles developed a theoretical framework for the inclusion of women in peace processes. The theoretical perspectives on women and peace argues two main points. First, women are naturally averse to war due to their biological nature in nurturing children. Second, the women nurturing feminine trait has been devalued because it is superior to the male counterpart and therefore provides for better cooperation for peace. I can’t endorse either school of thought, but I am convinced that there is a need for stronger decision-making roles for women in peace processes especially since women have delivered successful contributions to peace as evident in Liberia. 

In 2003 thousands of women of all religious backgrounds dressed in uniform white clothing gathered in protest to sing, pray, and sit in the government district of the capital city of Monrovia as captured in the award- winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.  This drew international media coverage as it was amazing to see women of Christian, Muslim, and other traditional religious groups standing side by side only armoured in prayer to influence the peace process. A key component of their protest involved a sex strike, where women on the frontline of the protest and those who joined silently across the country withheld sex from their husbands and partners as a part of their strategy to secure peace.  The practice of sex strikes dates back to ancient Greek times and has shown to be surprisingly effective. While feminists worldwide debate whether this method advances or hurts the feminist movement, I would argue the use of this technique—especially in Africa—where women battle for equality has been uniquely limited due to cultural structures more so than their counterparts elsewhere, is a fundamental tool of women’s protest. 

Liberian women confronted then-president Charles Taylor to induce peace and were instrumental in convincing officials to attend peace discussions with the other leaders. This was facilitated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a subregional economic and political group. A small group of the women protesters travelled to Accra, Ghana where the ECOWAS meeting was being held, to continue their activism. When the peace group discovered that negotiations were going nowhere—because they felt the male leaders were wasting the opportunity to socialise with colleagues—the women upped their approach. They waited for the negotiators in corridors and outside of the building as they entered and exited meeting rooms during breaks, blocking exit points and forcing them back into the negotiation rooms to continue talks. Leymah Gbowee, a leader of the peace group for which she won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, and the group of women used a nuclear tactic that is considered to be the ultimate militant protest, level of profanity, and curse on men in African custom—for a woman to expose her fully naked body to a man in public. This is what finally forced the negotiators to remain in the room until they reached a resolution.

With significant assistance from former U.S President George W. Bush administration, the Liberian President Charles Taylor was forced to step down and the final battle of the intermittent 14-year civil war came to an end. International organisations stepped in to lead Liberia’s transition and provide support in the peace-building processes. Liberian women’s continual peace efforts were instrumental in restoring the democratic process of voting. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace mobilised women throughout the country to flood the polls which subsequently made history for twice electing Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005 and 2012. 

Liberia’s journey to peace is one example of how a group of African women’s participation made resistance and negotiations more successful in the peace processes. Women deserve a seat at the decision-making table.

By Chantal Victoria Bright

Image: AFP