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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Celebrating Women: Happy March 8th! International Women’s Day!

5 things every African Woman must know: A Conversation with Leymah Gbowee
Leymah Gbowee on David Letterman 

“For women everywhere in the world, if you are looking for a King, Gandhi or Mandela to solve your problems, you have missed the mark we are responsible for changing our own situations” Leymah Gbowee, 2-28-2012

Happy International Women’s Day Change Makers! This international women's day is one that is extremely special for me because I had the amazing opportunity to interview one of my role models Leymah Gbowee a week ago.

During the Commission on the Status of women I was given the opportunity to sit in on an Interview of Leymah Gbowee hosted by the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning (AWLN) The AWLN is composed of high-profile women leaders from 15 countries across Africa Leymah Gbowee included. These women include high level government officials, parliamentarians, the former Prime Minister of Burundi and 1st Ladies. The Network is also composed of leaders from a broad spectrum of civil society, business and the arts. The network had a very integral involvement at the United Nations during the CSW and conducted a series of events, bringing visibility to the work of African women at the UN level this event being one of them. To find out more about AWLN you can visit them on face book at I hope you enjoy and are inspired by the interview in light on International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.

Leymah Gbowee African women’s rights activist, Social Worker, Mother, Liberian and an African woman recently won a Nobel peace prize in 2011 along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (President of Liberia) for mobilizing the Liberian women’s peace movement which brought muslim and christian women together, to protest for peace and was one of the main catalysts that ended the 7 year Liberian civil war removing the rebel leader and dictator Charles Taylor.  Leymah is also known for a famous international documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”  [1] featured in numerous film festivals. Her memoir written in 2011 titled “Mighty be Our Powers” depicts her life from childhood until her involvement in the Liberian Women’s Peace movement is a must read. Leymah is a one of a kind woman and the conversation was a humbling and inspirational experience for me as an African woman and activist. As a survivor of war in Sierra Leone her story resonates very strongly with me and to see all that she has accomplished for women in Africa is amazing and she should be celebrated.

On a beautiful New York evening she sat in her beautiful "Gara" head tied cracked a few jokes for us as she began to explain some of her ideologies for why the voice of African women is important in advancing Africa. She was so humble in her explanation, very practical and matter of fact and I decided to share her interview for other change makers out there to take these tips and implement and share . I call them the top 5 tips for activists.

Question: How would you say your childhood shaped who you are today?

Activism 1:
“At a very young age I learned that you should never back down from any issue in your life”

Leymah began the conversation as she shared a story about how her father who played a major role in why she is a feminist today. She mentioned “ I can remember my father saying to the people who were in charge of the Sande society (traditional society responsible for the rites of passage of young girls in Liberia and Sierra Leone) when they came to take us, that I will kill anyone who tries to join my daughters in society” . Society in West Africa is the traditional process young girls go through to learn about their cultural heritage etc and also where most of what the west calls “FGM” occurs. This outright protest by her father against harmful traditional practices made Leymah realize that one’s voice was extremely important in making change. This determination is what stayed with Leymah throughout her life,and was a driving force that made Leymah demand more against the rebel leaders in Liberia and mobilize women for change in Africa.

Question: What are some key elements that are needed in order for African women to advance in this society?

Activism 2:
"Women need Knowledge and Awareness, Political Representation and Economic Empowerment to Advance in African countries."

Leymah’s history and involvement in the Liberia women’s movement allowed her to learn about the issues that Liberian women experienced during the war, from rape, domestic violence, lack of political representation and lack of economic opportunities. The awareness of these issues allowed for their movement to become more powerful beyond the borders of Liberia and expand influence to other international women’s movements including Sierra Leone, Ghana and countries in the middle east. This lead the women's movement in Liberia to end the war.On a political level Leyman was able rally women to become a strong part of the voting process once democracy was restored after the war to vote for the Africa's first female president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Leymah explained that “we need to engage in dialogue and spread knowledge on our issues as women with each other. We need to get to the rural areas of Africa that still has communities of women that are not united and educate them on how being united can help their daughters and them gain more resources in their communities.” She continued to describe an example of why women’s voices are so important when she described the communities that were unified versus those that weren’t “We found that in certain counties in Liberia the areas with the high rates of violence against women, and low graduation rates had communities where women were not as organized, the areas with very low rates of violence against women and high graduation rates women are very vocal and organized. This is important for us to advance as women” Secondly she mentioned that women should be represented on political spheres and levels, from rural to the city women to be able to gain access to make change in our societies. Finally, providing jobs for women will allow women to see the value in sending their girl child to school, and also becoming more empowered in their homes.
Liberian Women's Peace Movement

Question: What do you define as Empowerment?

Activism 3: 
"To empower you must be prepared to give up some of your power as an activist. My father gave up some of his that day when he denied his traditional cultural beliefs of not committing his daughters to the secret society. That then empowered me to be where I am today."

Question: How does Reproductive Rights play into the importance of a woman feeling empowered?

Activism 4:  
"Women should be in every part of the discussion in reproductive health rights"

It is not for a white girl or someone from the west to say we are going to take the messages of reproductive health  and rights to Africa; it is up to us African women to do so. I want to have the right to have my children when and how I want to have them. Reproductive rights are part of women’s empowerment because it gives us the voice to be us. Leymah explained that having that voice should be as “simple as when you wake up in the morning and say today I am wearing my hair down, or today I am going to wrap my head”

Question: What is your message to the people of Liberia, and the women of Africa?

Activism 5: 
For women everywhere in the world, if you are looking for a King, Gandhi or Mandela to solve your problems, you have missed the mark we are responsible for changing our own situations

Resources: Documentary- Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Mighty be Our Powers- Leymah Gbowee Memoir
Leymah Gbowee Interview, CSW 2012 Liberian Embassy
African Women Leadership Network

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