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At the outset only a dream

At the beginning they were barely a dozen. They then became thousands. They would meet at the market place because it was there that the troops of the then-President Charles Taylor recruited children to take them to the front. The lorries left full. And they returned empty.

Tawakkul Karman, Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the ceremony for the presentation of the Nobel Prize for Peace (2011)

It was in Liberia in 2002, after 13 years of a bloody civil war which took more than 150,000 lives, that Leymah Gbowee had a dream. She dreamed that she was chairing a meeting in a church and beginning to fight for peace in her country. On waking up she decided that now was the time to do what she had only dreamed of. So it was that this Christian Liberian social worker, mother of six children, gathered a group of women in a market and, together with another woman, Asatu Bah-Kenneth, a Muslim, founded a movement which led to peace in Liberia, as well as to the historic election of the first woman president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

In this way the Movement of Women for Peace and Reconciliation came into being in Liberia.At first no one took these women seriously. They were told to stay at home. But the women paid no attention. On the contrary, they began to organize more and more meetings and marches, while the war went on. In the end they decided on a matrimonial strike, refusing sexual relations with their husbands. For months Leymah Gbowee encouraged the women of her country to put pressure on their men to end the civil war. And after three months the women obtained a meeting with Taylor, and obliged him to promise that he would initiate a dialogue with the rebel groups in Ghana. Their struggle restored peace to the country, smoothing Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s path towards election as president. The new Head of State inherited a Liberia that had been torn apart by a long and cruel civil war which had destroyed the economy, the social fabric and the future of a whole generation of young people: there were more than 25,000 demobilized guerrilla fighters who the conflict had robbed of both their childhood and their education. Johnson Sirleaf was committed to promoting reconciliation, to laying the foundations for a country at peace, to reinstating the authority of the elders and of the law, and to turning her back on such malevolent figures as Charles Taylor, a former guerrilla and the former President of Liberia, convicted by the International Court of Justice at the Hague for his crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Liberia is an example of the slow but inexorable progress of women in Africa and of the crucial role that they are playing in the construction of a more peaceful, just and reconciled continent. This small country has been through two civil wars in 14 years. The determination of the women was so unshakeable that when the dialogue between the various factions at war entered a phase of stalemate they barricaded the hall where the peace talks were being held, not allowing the men to leave before they had reached an agreement. That agreement was signed at last, in August 2003.

In Africa most women live in political contexts that are only slightly or not at all democratic, where gender inequality is lost among other more serious problems. Women are victims of tribal cultures which relegate them to secondary roles. They have no voice in their communities, just as they cannot receive legacies or own property. In the name of ancestral religious traditions and beliefs they are subjected to polygamy and forced to undergo brutal genital mutilation. And it is always they who miss out on education, health care and politics and become the target of gender violence and rape as war weapons, with all the consequences of horror, venereal diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

However, this most harsh and distressing picture would not be complete unless it were also emphasized that these same women are fighting with all their strength no longer to be considered victims, to obtain social, economic and juridical visibility and to recover the control of their own bodies and lives.“African women say ‘no’ to Afro-pessimism”, Nestor Nongo, a sociologist and professor who lives in Spain, writes in his blog, “and restore hope throughout the continent. They expel dictators, put their country back on its feet, influence political agendas, fight for human rights and take care of abandoned people and orphans. And they reconcile society, innovate and create, direct businesses and protect the environment”. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leuman Gbowee received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 for the crucial role they played in putting an end to the civil war in their country. As well as to them, the prize was also awarded to Tawakkul Karman, a young Yemeni woman, head of the group Women Journalists Without Chains, created in 2005. It is their merit to have fought with all their might for women’s rights, to have defended human rights and to continue to represent the female soul of an Africa which aspires to peace and justice.

Silvina Pérez

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