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Nobel Peace Laureate to Speak at Commencement

Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee was once an ordinary Liberian mother, raising her children in the West African nation of about three million people. But her faith and convictions would inspire her to lead the women’s protest movement that helped put an end to a bloody civil war that had devastated her country.

Gbowee, who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakul Karman, will address Vassar’s graduating class as Commencement speaker on May 20.

"Her life story of leading the struggle for peace, justice, and human dignity in the most difficult circumstances is tremendously uplifting,” says Vassar president Catharine Hill. “That story—and her continuing advocacy for women's rights and the role of women in building just societies—is one that inspires us across a wide range of interests and disciplines at Vassar.”

Gbowee was just finishing high school in Monrovia when the hostilities in her country began in 1989. Charles Taylor assumed the presidency there in 1997 after leading a rebel group that overthrew the previous government. Rebel factions soon began to fight for control of the country and Liberia’s natural resources. The war claimed more than 150,000 lives and displaced more than a million people. Those referred to as “internally displaced persons” were the focus of Gbowee’s first attempts to combat the effects of war.

Between 1995 and 1996, she worked as a caseworker for the country’s Ministry of Health. Later, in the Lutheran Church in Liberia’s Trauma Programme, she helped refugees cope with their alienation and fear in response to widespread violence, including rape, which was being used as a weapon of war. Among the most vulnerable in her country, she realized, were women and children. By then, she was a mother, too, and she resolved to do what she could to help end the war.

Gbowee organized the Women in Peacebuilding Network out of the local Lutheran church she attended with her family. The mixed-faith group staged several large-scale protests, including a sex strike, which lasted off and on for a few months, but had a broad impact. “[The strike] had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention,” Gbowee recalled in her autobiography, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.

In the largest of the protests, the women took over an open-air market located on a route President Taylor took to work each day. Describing the scene for the New York Times, Bob Herbert wrote, “Thousands of women … showed up day after day, praying, waving signs, singing, dancing, chanting, and agitating for peace.”

A year later, as President Taylor faced mounting international criticism for refusing to negotiate with rebels, Gbowee and several hundred women linked arms outside of his negotiating room, where talks had nearly broken down several times. They would not be moved, she said, until a negotiation was reached. They barricaded the delegates in their chamber for days.

A few weeks later, Taylor and the rebels emerged with a peace agreement and Taylor subsequently went into exile in Nigeria.

“I’m a believer in my work, in the community,” says Gbowee, who encourages ordinary people to be a part of significant change to improve the world. “If you see there’s a problem, you should move toward solving it.”

From 2004 to 2005, Gbowee worked as a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a public agency formed to investigate and document war crimes throughout the country. She later earned a master’s degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. In 2006, she was one of the three founders of Women Peace and Security Network Africa, headquartered in Ghana; she became its executive director in 2007.

That was the same year she met Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker, the producer and director of Pray The Devil Back To Hell, named the 2008 Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. Gbowee, its central character, visited Vassar in 2009 to screen the film during Peace Week and to speak in a course on global feminism.

The activist has been a staunch advocate for the education of women. In recognition of her work supporting young West African women in pursuing post-secondary education, Vassar has agreed to establish two full four-year scholarships for West African women. Gbowee will work with the school to identify candidates for the awards.

Gbowee, who is considering continuing her own education in pursuit of a Ph.D., turned 40 in February. “I have a lot to celebrate at my age,” she says. “I should be grateful for what God has done for me. At 40, a lot of people are still trying to find what their true calling is.”

–J. Victoria Sanders '00