Peace. Action. Karachi. Lessons from Liberian women

Liberian women demonstrate at the American Embassy in Monrovia at the height of the the civil war in July 2003. Photo: Pewee Flomoku

Poster: Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Original Artwork: Olaf Hajek

Originally published in The News blog,  What Karachi can learn from Liberian women, April 6, 2012

Beena Sarwar

Watching “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, an hour-long documentary film about how a small band of women came together to bring an end to the bloody civil war in Liberia, it struck me that their approach may well work in Karachi.

Although Liberia, with a population of barely three million is just a fraction of Karachi’s over 16 million, both have been gripped by ongoing turf and gang wars. As in Liberia, the underlying motives are to gain power over resources and employment.

The intense scale of violence in Liberia brought on by violent warlords and the corrupt Charles Taylor regime claimed over 200,000 lives before the women won peace in 2003. Their sustained movement of about two-and-a-half years was built upon earlier struggles waged by women, journalists and political activists.

Leymah Gbowee. Photo: Michael Angelo for Wonderland

The person who sparked the new movement was Leymah Roberta Gbowee(recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011), galvanised into action after fleeing the fighting with her children. In the documentary, she tells the story calmly, in measured words recalling the moment many years ago when her three-year old son said, “Mama, I wish just for a piece of doughnut this morning, I am so hungry.”

“I told him, I am sorry, I don’t have a piece of doughnut to give you.”

“‘I know,” he said. “But still, I just wish for a piece of doughnut.”

“My children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives,” Leymah realised.

Driven to desperation, she had a vision: get the women of the church together to pray for peace.

She started with her own Lutheran church. Women from all the Christian churches then came together under the umbrella of the Christian Women’s Initiative and joined the Woman in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET).

Liberia’s corrupt President Charles Taylor invoked highly religious rhetoric, claiming that if God did not want him to be there, he wouldn’t be President. In a bid to beat him at his own game (literally, “pray the devil back to hell” as Leymah explains), the Liberian women lobbied with individual Christian pastors and bishops and Muslim imams, to gain their support.

One of the women invited to the first WIPNET meeting was Asatu Bah Kenneth, a police officer and the president of the Liberia Female Law Enforcement Association. Asatu was so moved by what she heard that she stood up and told the congregation that, “as the only Muslim present in this meeting”, she would mobilise women from her own community. She created the Liberian Muslim Women’s Organisation, which joined hands with the Christian Women’s Initiative. All these groups together formed the Liberian Mass Action for Peace.

As the documentary narrative unfolds, told by some of the key women involved, the Liberian women’s experiences provide valuable lessons relevant to any conflict. As I watched, I felt it would be worth a try in violence-torn Karachi, where the gang- and turf- wars have claimed so many lives over the past decades.

The Liberian women were pushed to act by the thought that if they didn’t, as one activist said, their children would ask, “”Mama, what was your role during the crisis?” This is a question the children of Karachi, of other cities torn by violence in Pakistan may well also ask.

The Liberians were so used to living with the violence that it was “only after I came to the USA to study for my Masters, that I realised that everyone in Liberia was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” said journalist Janet Johnson one of the main characters in the documentary, who was present at the discussion following the screening I attended. “Everyone was affected. It could be you tomorrow.”

Just like Karachi, I thought.

Women from different walks of life banded together with a one-point agenda and a common goal, focusing on the word “Peace”. No political party flags or slogans were allowed.

They made a conscious decision to not involve men, although they received tremendous support and respect from men.

“Women in Africa are not taken very seriously in the public domain. They usually speak through their men,” said Janet in response to a question. The demonstrations and sustained protest were a learning experience, and empowering, for them too.

Just like Pakistan.

Women in Africa are also viewed with a certain respect. The Liberian women used their position in society to leverage their agenda, using language like: “Your mothers have come to beg you for peace, don’t let us down”, “See your mothers weep for their sons’ lives” and so on.

Could this not work in Pakistan?

“We said that the men are guilty by omission or commission, and if they didn’t stop it, or do something to stop it,” said Vaiba Flomo, President of the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative, quoted in the documentary. “Many of the men agreed. Yes, we have to try harder.”

Vaiba added with a laugh: “If they didn’t act, we said we were going on a sex strike”.

The women publicised their actions through the media. Radio journalist Janet Johnson, known as “Iron Lady of Media” for her efforts to expose corruption during Taylor’s regime, met the women of WIPNET when she reported on them for a story. She soon became part of their outreach and advocacy programme. She broadcast WIP’s actions, put together press releases, and got other journalists on the same page.

The women decided to hold public demonstrations every day, sitting at the fish market in the capital Monrovia. They made a conscious decision to wear white, to forgo jewellery and make-up, and to tie back their hair.  They got white t-shirts and ID cards printed with the WIP logo.

Every day, for over two years, women numbering in their hundreds, the numbers rising to 2,500 at the movement’s peak, lined the main road, under the blazing hot sun or torrential downpours  – many carried umbrellas. They held up cardboard placards saying “No more war”, “We tired running, we want peace”, “Stop the killing”, and so on.

“As the women sat there week after week, every morning, they got to know each other, to empathise with each other,” observed Leymah.

Many of the activists, working with the child soldiers and young men who had been forced to kill, realised that the perpetrators were victims too. “They were part of our own society. Once the peace agreement had been reached, we couldn’t cast them out,” says Vaiba Flomo. “We need to forgive and move on.”

Who can deny that Karachi too needs such a sustained peace process — and forgiveness — across various divides.

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