Barnard Medal of Distinction Citation for Leymah Gbowee presented by President Debora Spar at Commencement 2013.
Leymah Gbowee. Liberian activist. Esteemed Nobel laureate. Advocate for the rights of women. Speaking truth to power, on a mission for peace, you have changed the face of a nation.
When the first civil war erupted in Liberia in 1989 and threw your country into chaos, you were just 17, living with your family in Monrovia and trying to find your way in the world. By 1996, at the start of a three-year lull in fighting and 200,000 casualties later, UNICEF began training social workers to counsel those traumatized by war. You took the training to be of service, to lessen the suffering, to come to terms with your own abuse in the process.
And the rest is an object lesson for us all.
By the onset of the second civil war—armed with nothing but determination and insight, charisma and devotion—you stepped out on your remarkable, history-making path. Undaunted by personal poverty and displacement, you led Liberia’s newly-formed Women in Peacebuilding Network, doing what had yet to be done in the region. And then, in 2002, as chronicled in the award-winning film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and your memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, you summoned the collective will of the women of Liberia in a move so risky and so bold as to be almost unthinkable. In a country where dissent and death often go hand in hand, you —the women in white—sat in the wake of a warlord and united for peace. You forced a meeting with Charles Taylor, you pressured the warring factions, you locked arms, dug in your heels, and unstalled the negotiations. Taylor resigned, a deal was signed, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power as Africa’s first elected female head of state—a phenomenal sequence of events credited in great part to you. “We had nothing to lose,” you said, “… we had to step out.” And today, thanks to your ongoing efforts, we see a population of women who will not be silenced, and a generation of girls who can realize their dreams.
As if our awe in your achievements wasn’t enough, you received the 2009 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and The Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights and, in 2010, the John Jay Medal for Justice. One year later, the Nobel committee sent a signal to women across the globe by awarding the 2011 Peace Prize to you, President Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, for your nonviolent struggle to promote peace, democracy, and gender equality, and, as the citation notes, “out of respect for the will to act that you represent.”
For you, Leymah Gbowee, your national anthem is more than mere words: “With heart and hand our country’s cause defending. We’ll meet the foe with valour unpretending.” On behalf of this College and the 605 proud graduates whom you have inspired, we present you with the 2013 Barnard Medal of Distinction, for your boundless courage, your unprecedented leadership, and your insistence on taking a stand.
You have met the foe. You have made the world a better place. And, you have our thanks.