Lemah Gbowee grew up in Monrovia and was ending her secondary education when civil war broke out in Liberia. Unable to attend college, she became a social worker who counseled ex-child soldiers who had been conscripted to fight for Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
The wars, which eventually claimed 250,00 lives, continued, and Gbowee joined a pre-existing organization called Women in PeaceBuilding (WIPNET). In short order she rose to a leadership position. A devout Christian whose faith served as a wellspring for her activism, she helped bring Christian and Muslim women’s groups into coalition–no small feat–in Liberian Mass Action for Peace. It was this group that was able, through a series of peaceful demonstrations–well, not exactly peaceful, as Gbowee and her fellow activists were often seriously injured and horribly insulted–to pressure Taylor (a truly horrible person who, having been elected as president, tacitly continued to support guerrilla action throughout the country) to attend peace talks in 2003.
Women from LMAP traveled to Ghana to make their presence known at those talks. Although Taylor fled the country halfway through the proceedings, leaving his goons in charge, “General Leymah,” who must be among the bravest women I’ve ever heard of, marched directly into the building with her troops and forced the warlords holding counsel therein to deal with them. In just two weeks, a treaty was ratified that ousted Taylor and promised free elections.
Two years later, Gbowee’s service helped lead to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who deserves her own HH entry). She has gone on to earn a Master’s degree in Conflict Transformation, and receive numerous global awards for her efforts. She continues to organize West African women for peace and prosperity.
And did I mention she’s also a mother of five?
For her skill at bringing women together, and her brave service to the citizens–particularly the children and women–of Liberia, we honor Lemah Gbowee.
If you want to learn more about Gbowee, you can enjoy this interview with Stephen Colbert, and look for (or rent) the award-winning, woman-produced documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which is being screened all over the place this fall.