The Courage of Human Rights Defenders: Women Protesting Violence Are Often Met With Violence


Leymah Gbowee of Liberia was one of three women to be honored with the 2011 Nobel Prize. As a human rights defender, Gbowee identifies herself as a social worker and her community organizer focused on protesting the use war rape and child soldiers in Liberia’s civil war. Her spirit and creativity are captured in the “sex strike” that was threatened if a peace treaty was not signed meeting the demands set forth by the women that she organized.  When accepting the prize, in the style of a true community organizer, Gbowee recognized all of those who were a part of the peace movement in Liberia. She said “Thank you for sitting in the rain and under the sun. This is your prize. This is our prize,” She went on to say “The world used to remember Liberia for child soldiers but they now remember our country for the white t-shirt women.” This reference to white T-shirts captures one of the strategies used by protestors who wore white T-shirts as they demanded an end to Liberia’s brutal civil war. “Who would have ever thought that Liberian women would have been among faces of women’s global victory, but you did it.”

As a social worker myself, I am proud to see Gbowee recognized for her courage and strength. Her work as a human rights defender and leader exemplifies how one may build collective energy for peace—confronting brutality and human rights abuses. Gbowee shines in this moment and the women in Liberia and around the world share a moment of celebration.

There are so many courageous women around the world engaged in peace work at all levels, including protest. I think of my human rights defender friends in Guatemala who continue to confront violence against women and femicide, confronting the killing of women as a form of terror to strike fear in the community. Then, there are the women of Egypt who protest for peace only to be called prostitutes or “whores” in an effort to dis-empower them. Women protestors face beatings and rape as they seek democracy. And, the women who protest the sexual violence against Tamil women are under scrutiny and great personal risk. We must not forget that women all around the world who protest violence against women and civil conflict, often risking their lives. Their voices, confronting oppression and exploitation, must be heard and recognized for the power to change laws and ultimately build a more just and peaceful society.

The power of protest was clear in Liberia, now we watch as women take the lead in demanding a better future in Egypt.

Finally, congratulations Leymah Gbowee, I honored to share the professional identity as a social worker and I wear a white T-shirt in solidarity!

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