Standing Up

“You have to stand up, step out and work for your own peace.” is the advice that Leymah Gwobe gives to women of the world. Leymah shares the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with fellow Liberian activist, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakul Karman of Yemen. In 2007 Tawakul began leading youth protests that forced Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Unfinished Revolution, Tawakul writes: “On behalf of many of the young people involved in Yemen’s revolution, I assure the American people that we are ready to engage in a true partnership. Together, we can eliminate the causes of extremism and the culture of terrorism by bolstering civil society and encouraging development and stability.”

Development and stability have dawned in Liberia. In 2009, I traveled to Liberia as a delegate to the International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security co-convened by President Sirleaf and President Tarja Halonen of Finland. It was a transformational experience.

My transformation came from seeing the backdrop of Monrovia where the colloquium was held. Reading about Liberia’s 15 years of civil war was little preparation for seeing its effects– electricity only available during certain times, most homes without running water, limited sanitation and waste removal, and a generation of youth who did not attend school due to pervasive violence. It was Leymah Gbwoe in her role as a mother of six children who decided to stand up and speak out to end the war. Documented in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell and illuminated in her recent book Mighty Be Our Powers, Leymah and a group of women, both Christians and Muslims, used prayer, nonviolent demonstrations, and a sex strike to force the end of the war. It was these women’s activism that paved the way to elect Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who, after a close election this week, now faces a run-off.

Two weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Black Women’s Agenda (BWA). BWA is a coalition of 43 Black women’s organizations who work together collectively to educate, advance, and support progressive measures for Black women. At the 2011 annual meeting Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and Elisabeth Omilami, CEO of Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless, were honored for their work as advocates for children and families. Both Mrs. Edelman and Elisabeth are laboring, like Tuwakul, Leymah and President Sirleaf, during the worst times in their countries. 

Mrs. Edelmen’s prophetic message is chilling. The United States is not in a civil war, but the current economic climate is claiming many casualties. During the luncheon she shared recently released 2010 Census Data which confirms there are 46.2 million poor people in America, the largest number in the last 52 years. One in three of America’s poor are children—16.4 million, over 950,000 more than in 2009. More than 7 million children are living in extreme poverty, while 65% of children living in homes below the poverty level have one parent who works. Even with a job, workers are not earning a wage that keeps them out of poverty.

Elisabeth Omilami is carrying the legacy of her parents, civil rights icons Rev. Hosea and Juanita T. Williams as CEO of Hosea Feed The Hungry and Homeless (HFTHH). Based in Atlanta, the organization provides meals, food boxes, housing/shelter, financial assistance and health care to over 50,000 persons living in extreme poverty and the working poor throughout Georgia, three additional states, the Philippines, the Ivory Coast and Uganda and Haiti.

What can we learn from the lives of President Sirleaf, Leymah, Tawakul, Ms. Edelman and Elisabeth? The rewards of taking risks and the power of acting out of conviction are two lessons. These women are exemplars of effective leadership during the worst of times. To address the complex problems in the 21st Century, gender equity in leadership is a must. What are women’s issues? Everything.

This post was contributed by Deborah Richardson, Executive Vice President, National Center for Civil and Human Rights,