This is not a fairytale. One woman came from a world of talking mice and sleeping beauties, the other from 14 years in the hell of a civil war, with the devil himself on the loose. When Abigail Disney, (Walt’s grandniece) visited Liberia, she was shocked to learn about Leymah Gbowee and the thousands of women who had successfully and nonviolently brought an end a long civil war three years earlier. She hadn’t heard anything about it.
For 14 years, the women of Liberia had held their families together the best they could, while men waged war with rape, terror, and automatic weapons. Over 200,000 died in the war; thousands more wished they had. In the capital city of Monrovia, women, children, and the elderly, forced to flee from their homes, barely managed to survive in camps for the “internally displaced.”
The Women Step Up and Sit Down!
One day, Leymah Gbowee, a social worker who counseled ex-child soldiers, decided enough was enough. Women had to take on both the warlords and the corrupt regime of President Charles Taylor and demand peace. She turned to the women in her church, asked them to dress all in white, bring a friend, and meet her at the fish market to pray. A call was issued over the radio, and the women showed up. They sat where President Taylor could see them from his office window.
When Assatu Bah Kenneth, a police officer, heard what the Christian women were doing, she mobilized her Muslim sisters, and they, too, went to the fish market.
Through an umbrella organization called Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), women’s groups had worked tirelessly for a negotiated peace. Now, they came by the hundreds for a sit-in at the fish market. They held up banners, sang, and prayed for peace — Christians and Muslims together. (Photo from Pray the Devil Back to Hell.)
When the violence around them escalated, the women didn’t get discouraged. Instead, they erected an in-your-face billboard which read, “THE WOMEN OF LIBERIA SAY PEACE IS OUR GOAL, PEACE IS WHAT MATTERS, PEACE IS WHAT WE NEED.”
They wrote a position statement and marched through the streets of Monrovia to present it to the president and demand a meeting. The women had their first victory on April 23, 2003, when Taylor finally met with a women’s peace contingent, while other women sat outside the office, holding hands and praying. He agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana if the women could find the warlords and get them to come.
The women sought out the rebel warlords at the hotel where they were meeting in Sierra Leone. They lined the streets and held a sit-in, blocking the hotel doors, demanding to be heard. The warlords realized the women meant business and finally agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana.
Not willing to take anything for granted, the women raised money to travel to Ghana. They were ingenious and relentless in their nonviolent campaign for peace, using a variety of tactics — sit-ins, blockades, a sex strike, singing, prayer, marches and demonstrations, candlelight vigils, a threatened nude action. The women were tired of war. They’d had enough.
Even after a peace agreement was announced and Taylor resigned and went into exile, the women stayed involved. They registered voters, set up polling stations, and helped do the work of rebuilding a nation. On November 23, 2005, the people of Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female head of state in Africa.
A New Kind of Disney Film
When Abigail Disney visited Liberia, she was astonished to hear this remarkable story. Why didn’t the world know about what the women of Liberia had done? She decided to make their victory visible with the tools fate had given her. In an interview with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,” Disney recounted a discussion she had with her filmmakers:
We had a conversation as we were making that film about how hard it was to find footage of the women, and it was so striking how absent they were from any discussion of war in general, not just in the news but in the literature and popular culture, and so we decided it was time to make women visible in the landscape of war …
The result was the award-winning 2008 documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In 2011, Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Abigail Disney went on to make a five-part PBS documentary film series, “Women, War, and Peace,” about courageous women in various “hotspots” around the world. She also founded Peace Is Loud, an organization that inspires action through media focus on women peace-builders.
I love collecting, retelling, and celebrating stories like this one. After a summer of so much suffering and sad news (including the tragic Ebola outbreak in Liberia, while they were still trying to rebuild the broken medical infrastructure after so many years at war), it’s crucial that women’s voices are heard and creativity recognized in doing the hard work of waging peace.
To Go Deeper:
“Liberian Women Act to End Civil War, 2003” on Global Nonviolent Action Database
Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee with Carol Mithers
This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Olaf Hajek Illustrations for film Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Watch this amazing 3 minute clip from Pray the Devil Back to Hell and you’ll want to see more!
For more information and to book the film.
Photo of Gbowee and Disney by Gabrielle Revere