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Sex strikes and protests
Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee has been endlessly working to get peace to conflict-ridden Liberia. She talks to Supriya Vani about her methods and convictions.
Is your social activism a reaction to the excruciating suffering you faced?
One of the things that propelled me as a young girl was first watching the death and destruction of my community during the Liberian civil war. Also, when I started having children, I would picture the images of other children dying out of malnutrition or children who have been killed in some massacre. I got my anger from all this. But my anger was not to destroy but to fix something, and to not just sit down and hope for someone else to do this for me.
How did you succeed in healing children and women traumatised by the civil war?
For serving society one doesn't need to do a Masters in peace building or get trained by the Unicef. It needs compassion, the understanding to serve humanity and also to relieve people from their pains. I am not here to advise you, to laugh at you, I am just standing right here by you. It's all about understanding and not being judgmental about who they are and from where.
How did you rehabilitate Liberian child soldiers who could not think of themselves without small Kalashnikovs in their hands?
Such changes come from a sense of recognition, from motherly empathy and also from a desire to transform. A nation doesn't comprise of only big buildings but its people. So, when you work with the people, there has to be an understanding that, yes, we all make up this nation, we all are part of it. Only then are people willing to change. Those boys were going through a difficult phase. I told them they need to think beyond the killer mentality because it was a result of misguidance. And to move on the path of peace which shall bring them back their childhood. You need to throw away that thick negative lens in order to put on a new lens. It is difficult to engage with a child soldier. You need to follow the process of rehumanising because when they do wrong things we demonise them.
With the banishment of Charles Taylor from Liberia, do you think the people of Liberia have had their tryst with destiny? What is your vision for Liberia and the rest of Africa ?
I strongly believe that certain things are overseen by God and that the whole Taylor era was a tryst with destiny. But in the end it was for the world to know that evil can never overcome good. Taylor's entire legacy is a lesson for the rest of Africa and especially for Liberia. No one could imagine that the powerful president Taylor would have been brought down to a lobotomised state. This is a message for Sudan, Zimbabwe and to all those presidents who take Africans for granted by ruling over them instead of leading them.
You mobilised Christian and Muslim women to fight the repression of a tyrant ruler. Would you like to promote peaceful religious tolerance at an international level?
People tend to focus on dissimilarities and not on similarities. When we started working both with Christian and Muslim women our motto was to reinforce the similarities. In my opinion the world will generally be at peace when we don't try to understand what the other person's faith is made up of because it will be different from ours. We stood up, shouted and sung songs to look into what was common in us, like the death of poor children. We had common miseries and our common goal was to defy the demon.
You wielded a very unusual weapon - sex strike - for coercing men to fall in line and end the civil war. How did you get this idea?
It's a good weapon to get the media's attention. If you look at Cambodia, for example, there are hardly any news reports on women except of them being abused and being raped. But once women call a sex strike, the media enters the scene and wants to know the cause. It's a very good strategy. In Liberia we didn't expect women in urban areas to go on a sex strike. In rural areas Christian and Muslim women told their husbands that they are fasting and praying, and they wanted to stay away from sex until peace was restored in our community. Slowly, the men also became sympathetic to their cause. I usually tell people to be careful of the kind of non-violent strategy they apply. It's always good to look at your virtues, about your role in your community and then apply different strategies that you think will touch the heart of your community because the essence of protest is to touch the heart of your community.
What role do you expect India should play in the comity of nations to drive away hunger, poverty, exploitation and for ensuring dignity and grace for women?
India has come a long way in terms of development, education and progress. It is emerging as a world leader. For women related issues in India, there should be exemplary leaders who should spread awareness about women's rights all over the country. India is indeed flourishing but there are some practices which need to be abolished, like caste system.
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