Leymah Gbowee from Liberia didn't want the powerful story of Liberian women's peace-making to dominate this morning's round table discussion at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference. The subject was how to get women into negotiations to end conflict. But it was impossible for the Liberian story not to dazzle everyone.
Because when you look for examples of conflict situations where women's intervention has produced peace - the scenario UN SCR 1325 aims to promote - you have to come back to Liberia. And in Liberia, it was women's passionate and determined activism that made the difference, not the actions of any of the international mediators.
But that's not where the conversation started this morning. Leymah had outlined a domestic scenario -- brothers fight; the women of the household get hurt; then a foreign mediator turns up and completely excludes wives and mothers from having any say in the peace settlement. 'Even as women', said Leymah, 'we sometimes struggle to find justification for women's involvement in negotiations. But if you take the model of the family, you can see the unfairness of excluding women.'
Ann Patterson responded with fascinating information about her work as a mediator in Northern Ireland. When she started to work with imprisoned Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, they didn't want to have anything to do with her because she wasn't a military person. Gradually they accepted her -- but it was, she said, very difficult.
However, when the 'hard' negotiations on disarmament began, nobody wanted women there. 'General de Chastelain, the Canadian head of the independent decommissioning body, didn't even want to talk to us. The international negotiators would come to us to be briefed beforehand, but they didn't want us sitting at the table. Tony Blair was there, Bill Clinton was there, but the doors were closed to us. It was okay if we were in some hall in the back of beyond, mediating to avoid local conflict during the Orange marching season. But we weren't seen as having anything to contribute to negotiations about ending the war.'
Mavic Cabrera-Balleza said that in the Philippines, when women tried to be involved in the peace negotiations in Mindanao (whose stop-start progress began in 1997), the first question they were asked was, 'Did you carry a gun?' If they didn't, they were excluded. Right now, two women are involved on the government side, but there has never been a woman on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front side. Negotiations are called 'peace negotiations', she said, but in reality they're all about the people with guns; as in Northern Ireland, years of trying to build peace count for nothing once the talks begin.
Obviously one of the aims of negotiations is to get armed personnel to give up their weapons. But surely, said Leymah, such negotiations ought also to be about the total transformation of a society that has been destroyed by war. Women bring a practical, hands-on approach that involves working on trauma counselling, law reform, job opportunities, and so on, she said. 'Women bring these dynamics to the table. But men say they don't want a load of crying women in the room.'
Much of what Liberian women did to make peace is documented in Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney's 2008 film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. But Leymah Gbowee this morning added fascinating detail. When peace talks between the Liberian government, led by Charles Taylor (currently awaiting the verdict of the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Sierra Leone), and two powerful armed groups, began in Accra in June 2003, there were five women involved, two of them nominated by Taylor himself. The mass women's organisation that had pressured Taylor to enter talks in the first place didn't leave the talks to chance; they sent women to demonstrate outside, along with refugee women from camps in Ghana. 'We thought we'd be there for three weeks', says Gbowee; in the event, they were there for three months, and after the first month they were 'flat broke', sleeping eight or nine to a room, and saved only by a small grant from the African Women's Development Fund.
Liberian women demonstrate at the American Embassy in
Monrovia at the height of the the civil war in July 2003.
Photo: Pewee Flomoku/Balcony Releases
Initially, says Leymah, the women inside the negotiating chamber wanted nothing to do with the women outside. They were being well paid; they were comfortable; they were co-opted. One of them even said to the women outside, 'Do you think that with my level of education, I'm ready to come and sit in the dust with you to eat my lunch?'
But, said Leymah, they never stopped 'showing their faces' to the women inside, constantly asking them to meet and discuss the negotiations. Every day they were outside, protesting and publishing their views: 'We called ourselves the uninvited delegates'. After a month, the mediator asked to meet the women at 6am, before the day's talks began. 'He said, "I've realised you are the real women -- I want to offer you three seats at the table, fully funded". I thought to myself, "This would be the end of any hope. If we take these seats, we'll divide the women's movement". Without even consulting my colleagues, I said, "Thank you -- there are already five women in the negotiations -- let's keep it that way".
'Then we summoned the five women delegates, and we said, "This is what we've done. From now on, you please tell us what is going on inside". So they would text us about what some warlord was saying, or how some armed group was being difficult, and by the time the meeting broke for lunch, we'd have placards naming these people when they came out. And the official women were sitting with us on the ground, eating their lunch and writing alternative agreements to take back into the negotiations.
'They tried to buy us, to fund us like every warlord sitting around that table. And that's the danger for women brought in to negotiations -- that they get co-opted.'
As Mavic Cabrera-Balleza commented, women thinking about peace negotiations have to go beyond the idea of numbers. Had the Liberian women accepted the offer of three additional seats, they would have achieved nothing. And what their story also demonstrates, she said, is the importance of maintaining direct, intimate communication between 'official' women, and the women's movement on the outside.
Liberia now has the only elected woman head of state on the African continent, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. One of her first acts was to pass a new law that made rape a non-bailable offence and mandated life sentences for gang rape. The Ministry of Justice has established a Sexual and Gender Based Violence Crimes Unit and created a special distance prosecuting team to pursue cases in rural areas. In Liberia, there is no lack of political will to take rape seriously.
However, in 2010, only 28 cases came to court, says Gbowee, and of those, fewer than 20 saw perpetrators prosecuted successfully. The problem, she says, is lack of capacity at the judicial level. People graduate from law school, but lack practice in prosecuting cases successfully, particularly cases involving sexual violence and rape. Meanwhile the incidence of rape remains very high, especially of young girls.
So one of the strong lines of action emerging from the current conference -- to pursue high-level perpetrators -- runs up against lack of capacity. 'You can't think about high level prosecutions', says Gbowee, ''if your prosecuting team is weak. You'd be heading for disaster.'