International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Meeting a future Nobel Peace Prize winner

Today the recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize were announced.  They are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Tawakkul Karman and Leymah Gbowee. The three women were honored for 'their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work.'

I first heard the name Leymah Gbowee only a few weeks ago.  About 30 of us had gathered to hear the 39-year-old Liberian executive director of the Women, Peace and Security network speak on a Friday in mid-September, all unaware that we were listening to a future Nobel Peace Prize winner. Vital Voices, the organization that trains and promotes emerging women leaders from around the globe, had invited me to hear Gbowee speak about her just-published memoir and her involvement in the forthcoming PBS series, Women, War & Peace
We watched a short clip from the non-violent protest Gbowee had organized in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, beginning in 2002.  Then Gbowee spoke eloquently about her personal experiences involving women in building bridges across ethnicities, nationalities and religions – trying to bring peace to a country that had been torn apart by vicious civil war.  
When it came time for questions, I asked: what is your relationship with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?  As soon as the question left my lips, I could see Ms. Gbowee react with a smile.  Or was it a frown?  It was hard for me to interpret the look on her face.  Did she get the same question all the time?  Did she dislike the former World Bank official who is revered in Washington?  
“I’m not trying to stir up trouble,” I explained.  “But it is rare to meet a woman leader from Liberia in Washington.  You are only the second I’ve heard.”  
Indeed Gbowee knew Johnson Sirleaf, had known her for years, and she went on to describe a relationship that sounded like it had had its ups and downs.  Gbowee, after all, is one of the 95% of Liberian citizens who are indigenous.   Johnson Sirleaf is considered “Americo-Liberian” or descended from freed American slaves who went “back to Africa” in the first half of the 19th Century and then governed Liberia for most of its history.
Gbowee then described how she had boldly suggested to the president that her administration undergo a “peer review” process.  When Johnson Sirleaf agreed, Gbowee organized a series of remarkable meetings with women and girls from both the capital and the countryside. Each meeting was designed to identify and alert the government to their problems — from voter registration to teen prostitution — and discuss solutions.  Mid-way through one meeting, Johnson Sirleaf summoned government ministers to listen along and join the conversation.
Today the woman who dared a president to talk to ordinary citizens about their everyday struggles shares a Nobel peace prize with Africa’s first elected female president, a woman unafraid to accept the dare.
Anne C. Richard is the International Rescue Committee’s vice president for Government Relations and Advocacy.
1 comment


I and many others are still

I and many others are still mourning the death of our courageous and wonderful friend Wanagari Maathai of Kenya's--and the world's--Green Belt Movement. When she won the Nobel Peace Prize, we were thrilled that she would be recognized in this way. Like her, these two women from Liberia, and the other from Yemen, have put everything at risk to enhance life and livelihoods of other women and their families, This shows there is a new consciousness taking hold, and moving us away from the darkness. Thank you for all you do at IRC.