“You can never leave footprints that last if you are always walking on tiptoe.”
I would like to begin my address, Leymah Gbowee, with this quote by you. After all, you have, and there can be no doubt about this, left lasting footprints. Footprints in the lives of many women and, of course, in Liberia.
You were unable to walk on tiptoe in doing so, because if you want to have an impact on and change something, then don’t you automatically end up treading on other people’s toes?
You have led your life, or so it seems in retrospect, with firm steps and a clear goal. Despite the fact that you have taken many turns and detours – and were sometimes forced to do so. You were just 17 years old and had big plans for your future, had successfully completed your high school education and wanted to study medicine and then become a doctor when the civil war broke out in Liberia in December 1989.
That was a major watershed. Instead of studying, you had to flee your home country twice and leave everything behind you. When you returned to Liberia almost ten years later, in 1998, as a single mother, you only had yourself and your children.
You did not accept the fate of displacement that causes so many people to despair.
Rather you took your fate into your own hands – and also to help others. And so you became a social worker and worked as a trauma counsellor to assist the victims of the civil war, including former child soldiers.
I was also impressed to learn of the difficult circumstances under which you pursued your dream:
“Wake up and gather the women and bring them together to pray for peace” – that is what you wrote in your autobiography. That was in the spring of 2002.
Alongside your main profession, you helped back then to coordinate the activities of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), which had been launched just a few months previously.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the beginning, today’s prizewinner had seven women and a ten dollar budget at her disposal for making her dream a reality. The dream of peace for Liberia.
She founded the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, thereby sending an important message of hope to the people in the country, who, in a civil war that had raged for over ten years and had cost the lives of more than 200,000 people, including many children, didn’t also have to die. A civil war that we in this country can barely even imagine today, in which sexual violence against women and girls was omnipresent and in which sexual violence was deployed in a targeted manner as a weapon of war.
Acts of cruelty that not only hit Liberia, including the weakest, hardest – and which have still not been overcome around the world today.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In Leymah Gbowee’s peace movement, Christian and Muslim women from different ethnic backgrounds and a wide range of social strata worked together for the first time in the history of Liberia. The women gathered in over 50 municipalities of Liberia.
They were dressed in white and came together to pray and to demonstrate for peace.
In Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, thousands of women joined this peaceful protest and continued it each day anew, in spite of the heat and rain. This peaceful women’s protest initially led, at any rate, to the Liberian Government under President Charles Taylor agreeing to peace talks with the rebels.
However, the negotiations dragged on for weeks without tangible results while the hostilities in Liberia intensified and the rebels continued to advance. More than 1000 civilians were killed in Monrovia. But Leymah Gbowee’s women were not discouraged.
They continued their peaceful protest and upped the pressure on the parties to the civil war. The breakthrough finally came in the form of a sit in initiated by Leymah Gbowee, a demonstration numbering several hundred women that prevented the negotiating parties from leaving the negotiation room. Success was achieved by what I believe to be a female virtue, namely patience and tenacity.
You simply didn’t allow the negotiators to get away. You made them aware of their responsibility for peace and forced them to find a solution.
And, in so doing, you and your women injected fresh momentum into the peace talks.
Two weeks later, in August 2003, a comprehensive peace agreement was signed and a transitional government formed. Charles Taylor went into exile in Nigeria.
The women stayed – and continued to support the peace process and worked to preserve the peace agreement and to ensure that democratic elections were held.
The result was overwhelming!
In the late autumn of 2005, peaceful and democratic elections indeed took place in Liberia, from which Ellen Johnson Sirleaf emerged victorious, becoming Africa’s first elected female president. But now it was time to heal the deep wounds that the civil war had inflicted over the years. Leymah Gbowee joined the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
She also founded a pan African organisation to promote the strategic involvement of women in peace processes with a new programme that sought to introduce young women to peace work. Her Peace Huts project, establishing meeting and mediation places for women in rural areas, achieved global recognition.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Leymah Gbowee’s path to becoming a peace activist and a Nobel Peace Prize winner was anything but preordained. However, Leymah Gbowee’s story shows what a person – a woman! – can achieve with persistence and courage and the willingness to think outside the box and take new approaches, as well as the gift of inspiring others.
It is an honour for me to be able to offer you my congratulations on your impressive journey through life and for your commitment. You have truly left footprints.
And you are continuing your journey – also today – as a peace activist and advocate of women’s rights. Perhaps we will hear a bit more about your organisation, the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, which supports women and children in Liberia, in just a moment. Ms Gbowee, as a UN Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, you are also inspiring countless women and girls throughout the world to work to support a sustainable way of life and therefore a future worth living in for all people on our planet.
You have received a number of awards for your commitment, which goes much further still. The Nobel Peace Prize is certainly the most famous prize worldwide that you received in 2011, together with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemeni journalist Tawakkul Karman.
We also have, if I may add, a close connection as far as our political work is concerned.
As has just been mentioned, around three weeks ago, I attended the open debate in the UN Security Council in New York on the implementation of Resolution 1325.
This debate lasted for almost an entire day, and there were contributions from over 80 speakers. I believe that women have an important role to play in the promotion of peace and security, and there is still a great deal to be done in this area – this must become even more of a common priority for all members of the UN.
I have met many strong women from this wonderful and diverse African continent, who have impressed me most profoundly in recent months. You, Leymah Gbowee, have played a pioneering role in the efforts to involve women in conflict resolution and peace processes. In so doing, you have shown the way for other women’s movements, such as in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I am therefore particularly delighted to see you here today. Your important work shows that the equal participation of women in all phases of conflict management and resolution is not only a question of equal rights, but is also a key element of securing peace in the long term. Women, peace and security will be one of the Federal Government’s priorities in the Security Council. We are working at the national, regional and international level to ensure that women are able to participate on an equal footing in all phases and at all levels of conflicts, and are committed to putting an end to sexual violence in conflicts. We hope to assume the chairmanship of the informal working group on women, peace and security in the Security Council and to work actively to ensure that we achieve tangible progress in the implementation of Resolution 1325 in time for its 20th anniversary in 2020.
Honoured guests, “Peace is not everything, but everything is nothing without peace,” is what Willy Brandt once said, thereby summing up the absurdity of war.
When I tell Leymah Gbowee’s story, then I am tempted to add: “... everything is nothing also without women.”
I would like to thank the association of the International Democracy Prize for acknowledging just that. Leymah Gbowee, allow me to offer you my sincere congratulations!