"The example of the Liberian women woke me up to the reality that women are building peace in their communities every day.”
Sarah Jewell is the Director of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa-USA. The Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa was established in 2012 by Liberian peace activist, trained social worker and Nobel peace laureate Leymah Gbowee. The Foundation focuses on providing opportunities to women and youth as a way to ensure that future generations are peaceful, reconciled and empowered. Sarah has a Masters of Philosophy in International Peace Studies from Trinity College Dublin where she specialized in peace, feminist theory and human rights.
Can you start by telling me a bit about your work, generally, as an activist?
I studied law as an undergraduate and when I got to the halfway point of my law degree, I really had a crisis of faith because I was learning all this incredible content about human rights but I felt disconnected from communities. Then, I started working with this incredible feminist service in Canberra, Australia where I was going to university. The women there awakened me to an understanding of feminism – not just as a way of seeing the world – but as a form of feminist activism. That experience sent me on a radically different path. Instead, my career has me working very closely with communities – hearing what communities and frontline workers are seeing and helping make sure that politicians and decision-makers listen to those perspectives.
Can you explain how you got involved with the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa?
I stayed in touch with the organizers of that youth conference. I met Leymah in 2010 and she had not yet been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When she did, Leymah started to look at girls’ education and leadership as the next iteration of women’s peace work in Liberia. There is a connection between the USA and the modern state of Liberia because the modern state of Liberia was, partially, set up by returned slaves who were going back to the African continent from the US. It seemed like an obvious next step, to ensure the sustainability of the work, that we needed a presence in the United States to both fundraise for the work, but also to make the most of the opportunities for peace and security conversations taking place in New York at the United Nations.
Why is a feminist approach to peace needed?
Leymah has a beautiful turn of phrase when she talks about women and peacebuilding. She says, “Women bring oxygen to peace processes.” We focus on women and youth because if we always have the same people around the peace and decision-making tables, then we are likely to get the same decisions and the same results. In order to maintain peace long-term, we need to make sure that the next generation has the skills to do politics, community organizing and individual self-determination. The example of what the women of Liberia did in the early 2000s to bring peace to their country was about claiming space – a space that [up until then] was not seen as legitimate space for women. To include voices that were not seen as legitimate, but represented the full spectrum of interests in a community. That is the vision we have for democracy – where we all have a seat at the table, where we are able to express our interests and that those interests are taken into account.
Leymah often uses the analogy that if we don’t include women, it’s like trying to see an entire room with one eye covered. Our sight works best when we uncover both eyes. And our communities operate in the same way. If we want to achieve what is best for our communities, we can’t have just one gender, we can’t have just one race, just one economic group, as the only voices that we hear.
The foundation focuses on education, leadership and community empowerment. Tell us more.
Education is the backbone of the organization. The foundation started with the desire to provide scholarships to, primarily, girls, to make sure that girls have access to quality education in Liberia. We realized that our support needed to be holistic if we were really going to make sure that an individual girl, her family and her community were going to maximize the opportunity of going to school. It’s not just about paying school fees, or constructing a building. It’s about making sure that girls can have access to quality education. We have 110 students on scholarships through the foundation. That scholarship covers everything from school fees, housing, food, books, transport, and menstrual products. One of the things that is radically different is that we also provide regular health care and function as health insurance. We provide opportunities for mentoring, conflict resolution and leadership development. The leadership development component is about making sure that we are instilling not just the skills but an approach for the future of the country. We do a lot of practical peacebuilding. We have a peace camp, called “Peace through Fair Play”, for 10 to 15 years old. The camp uses games to learn about the tactics and the principles of the women’s peace movement.
For the community development part, the strength of the organization is that it is a local, grassroots organization. So, when Liberia faces crises, whether it’s the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Ebola outbreak in 2014, or the contentious elections that are happening this year, women across Liberia can identify the emerging issues on the ground and get the resources needed to respond. There is a local issue and a local response. It is extraordinary to see how the women’s peace movement from 2002 created relationships and an incredible network of women across Liberia who are identifying and addressing issues in their communities.
How has the work of the Foundation been impacted by COVID-19?
We learned a lot with Ebola and that meant that when COVID-19 happened, we had structures and relationships in place. We were distributing food and water to communities that otherwise were facing food and water insecurity. Through our community engagement work, we have connections and can find out what the community needs are. To give a practical example, as we were distributing food and water, the women [who work with us] were going door to door. That gave us the insight that there was an increase in domestic violence against women happening in some communities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the global community was realizing that these two issues were intertwined, we were already hearing this from women on the ground and were able to support local responses to violence against women.
Recently, in November, there was an amazing event held by the foundation celebrating Liberia. Can you tell us a bit about that event?
The event was called “A Taste of Liberia”. The idea was to gather in-person to eat Liberian food, dance to Liberian music, and celebrate Liberian culture. Of course, in 2020, we can’t gather together in-person. So, we developed a live-stream event. Leymah wanted to use her global platform to make sure that, internationally, people know more about Liberia than just its civil war past. That there is more to the Liberian story. There was a fantastic conversation between Leymah and a Benin singing star, Angelique Kidjo. Both women have foundations focusing on girls’ education. It was an opportunity to listen in on a conversation by two notable West Africans about their common passion and vision for the future. We heard from Leymah, but also from young Liberians. It was a snapshot of the strength and resilience of Liberians. It was a love note to Liberia from the Foundation.
Sarah Jewell on Twitter