Who said sex and politics don’t mix? Led by Leymah Gbowee, a young mother, Liberian women went on a sex strike to end the country’s brutal civil war. They were successful. Last year Gbowee won a Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign. With Liberia’s former President, Charles Taylor, about to be sentenced for war crimes in The Hague, Metro spoke with Gbowee.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee
“Sex strikes help good men”
Leyma Gbowee calls herself an ordinary Liberian mother of six. But without her, Liberia’s civil war would likely still be raging. Gbowee’s grassroots women’s movement has given West African women a higher profile, too – and Liberia’s President is now a woman. But with the exception of former President Charles Taylor, Liberia’s warlords remain free.
Charles Taylor is about to be sentenced and is the first-ever head of state to be convicted by the International Criminal Court. Do you feel vindicated?
When someone has been terrorizing communities, and your community has been violated, of course you’re relieved if he’s convicted. It doesn’t matter that Taylor has been convicted for war crimes he committed in Sierra Leone, not Liberia. We’ve waited for a long time, so we’re happy. There’s a sense that justice has finally been served, and that Taylor will pay for his crime. And he’s not coming back to our community!
Are sex strikes an effective strategy to end wars?
(Laughs) It’s effective in the sense that it gets people’s attention. Sex is an exotic thing, and many people would say it’s a taboo subject. But when someone dares to bring it to the attention of the public, it has two results. People start saying, “who’s this person doing this?” and they start asking why the person is using sex to highlight an issue. And it gets men thinking. There are a lot of good men out there! The percentage of men who wage war is very small. Good men outnumber evil men, but why are they silent? Our strategy helps the good men because it gives them a reason to take action. They start talking to their colleagues and beer buddies, saying “this war is wrong”.
So it’s not the sex strike per se, but the support it gives good men, that makes it an effective strategy?
Yes. Every man is interested in the act of sex. We withheld sex from our spouses to get attention, and our husbands obviously noticed what we were doing. We said, “we need you to take a stand”. And they did.
Would you recommend sex strikes to women in other war-torn countries?
People have told me many times, “why don’t you export your strategy to this or that country that’s also in the midst of a civil war?” But it’s not as easy as that. I can’t just go to a country and tell women how to make peace. I can encourage them, but they have to commit to peace and they have to do so beyond their political and ethnic affiliations. Regardless of whether you’re Muslim or Christian, and regardless of which ethnic group you belong to, there’s no way that we can solve a crisis without moving beyond such affiliations.
Liberia’s civil war was extremely brutal, with one President Samuel Doe being tortured to death on videocamera. How many other Liberian war criminals are there who should also face justice?
That’s the biggest debate in Liberia right now. Since Taylor’s conviction there has been a lot of discussion about the role former warlords still play in Liberia. In the case of Prince Johnson, the warlord who killed Doe, people are saying that he, too, should be brought to justice. The whole issue of justice has to be looked at in Liberia. We need to start the conversation about people’s role in the Liberian civil war and what should be done with them. Another issue we have to think about is whether this is the right time to start prosecuting war criminals, which we obviously haven’t done yet. What I can is that there’s no way Liberia will be a whole and healthy society if we don’t address the issue of justice.
Prince Johnson has since been a member of parliament in Liberia and placed third in last year’s presidential elections. Isn’t that sickening?
It is. The difference in African politics versus politics in the West is that people tend to rally around their identity. Liberia is no exception. Some people, including myself, don’t want a person who committed some of the worst atrocities in our civil war as a member of parliament, but if you ask the people of his tribe, they see him as a hero. Every warlord is a hero in the eyes of his own group.
If that’s the case, what’s the