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  • Cary Donham


In the Greek play “Lysistrata,” first acted in 411 BCE, Aristophanes’ character, Lysistrata, leads a group of women to refuse to have sex with their husbands until they end the Peloponnesian War. More than 2400 years later, women in Liberia adopted this nonviolent tactic, among others, to seek an end to the brutal Second Liberian Civil War.

The First Liberian Civil War, which set the stage for the Second Civil War, was a singularly bloody affair. It started in 1989 when a group of rebels primarily from the Gio and Mano peoples led by Charles Taylor, which had been persecuted by then Liberian President Samuel Doe, invaded Liberia from the Cote d’Ivoire. Lasting until 1996, the war cost 200,000 Liberian lives, almost ten percent of the country’s population. Taylor became president at the end of that war.

The Second Civil War began when Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), a group whose primary purpose was to remove Taylor from office, invaded Liberia in 1999 from the neighboring country of Guinea. The war saw villages destroyed, women raped and mass killings. Both sides recruited children to be foot soldiers in the war. By 2002, estimates of Liberian deaths from the war range from 50,000 to 200,000.

Social worker Leymah Gbowee, who had survived the First Civil War while pregnant and with two young children, wanted to bring women from Liberia’s two main religions, Muslim and Christian, together protest the war. First appealing to the Lutheran Church to which she belonged, Gbowee recruited several hundred Christian women to pray for peace and formed the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative. A Muslim woman, Asatu Bah Kenneth, spoke at a Women’s Peace Initiative in March 2003 and pledged to organize Muslim women to join with the Christian women. Despite initial difficulties in bringing women from the two religions together, they persuaded the groups to unite by saying, “Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know a Christian from a Muslim?” The united women formed the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET).

At first, as the women organized across Liberia, they focused on religious institutions, because Taylor attended church and LURD leaders attended mosque. As the war worsened, WIPNET broadcast a radio call for women to publicly protest and chose as the protest location the strategically located Fish Market, along the road where Taylor passed on his way to his presidential office. Dressed in white, they surrounded Taylor with signs and songs, sending the clear message that Liberia’s women wanted peace now. They wore a white t-shirt uniform, and as discussed above, developed a sex strike, refusing to have sex until their husbands mobilized for peace. Gbowee, later wrote that the sex strike had little or no practical effect, but it was valuable because it garnered media attention. Gbowee, Leymah; Mithers, Carol (2011). Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War: A Memoir. They put up billboards with the message that the women of Liberia want peace. Soon as many as 2500 women joined the protests in Monrovia.

When Taylor refused to negotiate with the LURD rebels, WIPNE first sent Taylor a list of demands. Taylor finally granted the women a meeting on April 23, 2003. Gbowee spoke to Taylor with 2,000 women gathered outside the presidential office and Taylor agreed to seek negotiations with the LURD rebels, which began in June 2003, in Accra, Ghana. Although a group of Liberian women traveled to Ghana and sat outside the building where negotiations were occurring, singing and holding signs, at first the negotiations stalled.

Meanwhile, Taylor was indicted for war crimes by an international court in Sierra Leone, and Taylor fled from Ghana to Liberia. There full-scale war broke out in Monrovia, yet women who had not gone to Ghana continued to pray at the Fish Market. As peace talks in Accra dragged on into late July, Gbowee and 200 women entered the hotel where the peace talks had stalled and sat down in front of the entrance to the room where the talks were taking place. They held signs that said, “Butchers and murderers of the Liberian people—STOP!” The women sent a message to those in the room that they would lock their arms and remain seated until those inside reached an agreement. When some men tried to leave the room, Gbowee threatened to take off her clothes. In her memoir, Gbowee explained that “[i]n Africa, it's a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself.” The women stayed outside the room for several days until the lead negotiator persuaded them to leave on the condition that they could return if the negotiators made no progress. Due to the women’s protest, the negotiations took on a more urgent tenor.

On August 11, Taylor resigned as president. Finally, a peace agreement was signed on August 18, 2003. Thereafter, Liberian women aided in disarming rebels and government soldiers, and then helped bring about democratic elections by registering voters and setting up polling places. The Liberian people elected the nation’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2005. Gbowee and Sirleaf were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

who later was convicted by an international court in The Hague Netherlands, of aiding and abetting war crimes during the Sierra Leone civil war, and sentenced to 50d years in prison. In addition, the Liberian movement was creative in borrowing the Lysistrata sex strike strategy and using the threat of a curse to shame negotiators into getting serious about ending the fighting in Liberia.


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