Maine Law welcomes Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee
March 27, 2013
PORTLAND, Maine – A movement for peace, one large enough to impact millions of people and to change the direction of an entire continent, doesn’t need grand beginnings. It can start with a few candid conversations. It can start in a single room.
For Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, the peace movement started with five women who decided they would no longer accept the tragedies of war and rape for themselves and their children. That small circle evolved into the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which unified Christian and Muslim women. Their efforts helped end the Liberian civil war in 2003 and also contributed to the election of the first female head of state in African history.
Gbowee, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for her role in that movement, visited Maine on March 20-21, 2013, as a guest of the University of Maine School of Law. She delivered the Law School’s second annual Justice for Women Lecture, and also spoke with students and activists in Portland about the need for action in the face of injustice.
“What makes you angry? Is there something that’s nudging you?” Gbowee asked high school and college students during an event at CIEE in Portland. “If you don’t take charge of the things you want to see happen in your life or your community, you may never see change.
“I get different questions from young people, like what can I do, how can I make change? Sometimes it is not in the elegance of your dress or in the way that you speak, it is the passion and fire with which you come,” Gbowee said.
At the Law School’s Justice for Women Lecture on March 20, Gbowee spoke to an enthusiastic and diverse crowd of more than 750 people, composed of high school and college students, immigrants and refugees, professors and lawyers, peace activists and others. The lecture was held at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center at the Westbrook Middle School. Gbowee focused on the global need to confront rape and violence against women. Sadly, the end of the war in Liberia did not abate widespread violence against women, she said.
“It’s not just a Liberian story, it’s not just a Liberian problem. Rape, abuse and violence have become a serious threat to women and girls (around the world). Girls and women on a daily basis continue to be targets,” Gbowee said. “In some parts of the world, they say it is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier.”
One part of the solution is for women’s rights advocates to invite men – from construction workers to CEOs – into the conversation, Gbowee said. Speaking with men at a personal level, about the relationships they have with their own daughters, sisters and mothers, can bring power to a conversation that might seem distant. Another part of the solution is to work toward a sustained education campaign for women and girls in the developing world, Gbowee said. Laws and support networks are useless if women don’t know about them and cannot put them to use, she said.
Gbowee was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakel Karman of Yemen. Among her many achievements, Gbowee is founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, and co-founder and executive director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa. Her work is chronicled in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, and in the documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
The March 20 lecture was attended by several Liberians who now live in the Portland area. Madia Benson Allolding, who came to Maine as a refugee about 15 years ago, said it was an honor to meet Gbowee and listen to her speak.
“I’m so proud of her. She is someone that we all really look up to, she has done so much good for Liberia,” Allolding said. “When I saw her in person, right away it was a warm feeling.”
The University of Maine School of Law is committed to promoting social justice in Maine and around the world. The Justice for Women Lecture series is an endowed program that brings speakers to Maine each year to discuss good work and strategies to benefit women and girls, in the developing world and in Maine. The Law School established the lecture series with generous support from attorney and civic leader Catherine Lee and other donors.
Maine Law’s international relationships reflect the growing global orientation of law. Some of the Law School’s initiatives include a post-professional LL.M. program with students this year from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Somalia; a Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, where faculty-supervised student attorneys represent clients in immigration and asylum matters; law courses streamed in real time to students in Afghanistan and China; and student exchanges and joint study with universities in Canada, England, France, Ireland and Hong Kong.