Updated: Jan 10, 2022
"None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful." – Mother Teresa
"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." – Helen Keller
It is common belief that there is power in numbers; that when people gather together with unity of purpose, they form an indomitable force with the ability to bring about much change. If you have ever read the Bible, you know the story of the Tower of Babel and how God had to stop them by throwing confusion into their midst and bringing an abrupt stop to their plan to build a tower that would reach heaven. It’s a story that depicts the negative aspects of group power used for the wrong reasons, but what about when this power is used for good?
When it comes to fighting for justice, the injustice around us can appear too ingrained into the fabric of society, too powerful to topple and downright too overwhelming for many of us. We give up because we can’t see how our small contribution could make any difference, let alone bring about the necessary change. We forget that in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, ‘there is power in unity and there is power in numbers’.
For Liberians in 2003, after fourteen years of a bloody civil war that led to the death of more than 200,000, and with little hope that the different factions were any closer to laying down their arms, a group of women decided that they had had enough. Although it was the men fighting the war, it was the women who bore the brunt of the suffering through rape and all kinds of assault. Some of them were abducted and either forced into slave labour or marriage to the rebels. Those who were left behind had the responsibility of looking after their children and elderly relatives amidst the most difficult of conditions.
These women “had to endure the pain of watching their young sons…be forcibly recruited into the army. A few days later these young men would come back into the same village, drugged up, and were made to execute their own family members. Women had to bear the pain of seeing their young daughters…be used as sex slaves at night and as fighters during the day…women had to sit by and watch their husbands, their fathers be taken away. In most instances these men were killed, and some of them were hacked to pieces."(1)
And so in the April of that year, a group of women under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee launched a non-violent campaign for peace. In a move that was almost unheard of, given the religious and ethnic divisions rife at the time, women from both Christian and Muslim organizations came together to form Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Their efforts were recognised by The West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), and before long, the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) was formed to tackle the plight of women in Liberia. There were only four women in this group initially. But the numbers grew, and their influence in turn increased. They refused to take sides in the conflict, demanding only peace. They employed various means in this fight for peace, including sex strikes, appealing to both Bishops and Imams alike.
This culminated in about 200 women holding a sit-in at the peace talks in Ghana, demanding that the parties come to a conclusion. They were tired of the negotiations that never seemed to come to a resolution. The authorities tried to arrest them, but failed, and even when the negotiators tried to leave, the women threatened to strip off their clothes, an act that would have brought shame to the male delegates. They persisted and they won. Eventually. Two weeks later, an agreement for cease-fire was finally reached and after two and half long years of campaigning by the women’s mass action, Liberia’s (and Africa’s) first female president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected.
On June 7 1968, 187 female machinists at a Ford factory in Dagenham walked out in protest against lower pay compared with their male counterparts doing a similar job. The strike literally brought the work in the factory to a halt. Four weeks later, the machinists went back to work after negotiating an increase in pay, but this wasn’t the end of the strikes as another took place in 1984. They were still not on the same pay grade as their male counterparts and so the fight wasn’t over. The first strike is said to have inspired the formation of the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights and the organisation of an Equal Pay demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1969. These two protests eventually led directly to the Equal Pay Act of 1970 where for the first time, employers had to treat men and women doing the same job equally with regards their pay and working conditions. Only by joining forces could these women have achieved this great feat.
I don’t know about you, but I am challenged by these stories. Challenged and inspired. What cause are you fighting for? What injustice are you addressing with your individual, yet powerful voice? It may seem like you are not contributing much, may sometimes feel like you’re ‘little old David’ facing the Goliath of injustice. But just as in this well-known Bible story, the seemingly more powerful fighter didn’t win the battle; the institutions where power resides will not win the battle of injustice. Persistent, passionate and pro-active people like you and me, ordinary people joining forces together, will win it. People who keep hitting at the dam until it comes crashing down. It may not be in your own timeframe, or even in your lifetime, but that is no excuse not to try.
As we celebrate International Women’s’ Day, remembering women that have brought positive change with courageous acts; let’s also remember that ‘there is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood.’ (Walter Reuter).
(1) Gbowee, Leyman. “Women and Peacebuilding in Liberia: Excerpts from a talk by Leymah Gbowee at the ELCA's Global Mission Event in Milwaukee, WI.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 30 July 2004.
This article was first published on 8/03/2021 in www.stubborn4justice.com