Some might say that there is a moral to every story, and the story of my life teaches that we can win our human rights.
My commitment to social justice and peace was forged during my own confrontation with brutality against women and children, both during my childhood and again during Liberia’s long and horrifying civil war.
Today, I am blessed to be a feminist, a peacemaker, an activist, and a defender of women’s rights, and I invite you to learn about my life and work, because it shows how we can join together to change our lives.
After a life that began with the rape of my mother and was marked by war and violence, I now work for a free Liberia, one that is not perfect but has increased opportunity for all. For the past 10 years, I have worked for West Africa Network for Peacebuilding-Liberia (WANEP) to help women participate fully in local governance and to help them shape their communities in the wake of the Liberian civil war; the war that made me the advocate I am today.
But my story could have been far different, because its beginnings are sadly all too common.
I was born in 1968, and began my early childhood in Owensgrove District, Grand Bassa, where I was disowned by my biological father. I lived with my grandmother as my mother, a victim of rape, had been only in the 3rd grade when she gave birth to me. I remained in the Owensgrove Elementary and Junior High school until I completed the 8th grade in 1979.
My grandmother did not want me to suffer the same fate as my mother, so she sent me away to live with my aunt so that I could complete school. I was able to do well in school and continue until the 11th grade, when my family was no longer able to support me. I was desperate to find money to continue my education, and I befriended a man who was far older than me (years later he became my husband and we now have six children together). I became pregnant and was thrown out by my aunt, and I went to live with my mother for the very first time. After I gave birth, my grandmother took my child in order for me to go back to school. She pleaded with another aunt to take me in so I could live with her in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where I could continue my education.
In 1983, I went back to attend the William V.S. Tubman High School and graduated in 1985. Eager to go farther, I sought and won a scholarship to enter the West African Insurance Institute in 1988, where I studied to be an insurance manager until the civil crisis in December 1990.
The crisis changed everything. School stopped, and rape began. In September 1990, I watched soldiers kill my step father in Paynesville because he was married to a woman from a different ethnic group. These soldiers asked my two stepsisters and me to put our father’s body in a plastic bag and carry it to a location of our choosing. I stood up, not knowing what to do, until another soldier came by and told them to leave my step sisters and me alone.
This soldier who intervened so bravely saved my life. My stepsisters and I travelled back to Gbarnga with him, and, as we crossed checkpoint after checkpoint, he made people believe that we were his daughters. As he saved us, he was looking for a way to desert the army of the rebel group to which he belonged.
I stayed in Gbarnga until it fell to other rebels on September 8, 1994. And, sadly, the battle for survival started once again. We ran away into the bushes out of fear of the different rebel factions that entered Gbarnga only to loot, kill, and destroy lives and property. Life in the bushes was very nearly unbearable, but we remained there for four years until the battle to regain Gbarnga was over.
When we returned, we found everything destroyed. There was nowhere to stay, so we sought refuge in my husband’s village. I stayed there for four years, until I came back to Gbarnga and began to work as a volunteer with the Development Education Network (DEN-L) in 1998. Three years later, on May 9th 2002, Gbarnga again fell to several armed groups, and I again fled, this time to Monrovia. I walked for many weeks with my children. When I arrived in Monrovia, there was growing tension everywhere as the rebels were encroaching on this city from the western side. I did not know what to do or how to start another journey.
Then I got an opportunity that would change my path forever.
In June 2002, armed groups were attacking from every angle of Monrovia. Because of massive displacement of citizens from other areas, Monrovia was flooded with internal refugees, resulting in a population of over 2.5 million people living in abject poverty.
I contacted the then National Network Coordinator of The West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), telling him that I was in Monrovia with children and without a job. Luckily, he asked me to come see him. As soon as I entered the office, I met Ms. Leymah Gbowee, a woman who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and whose contributions to Liberia are widely celebrated. On the very first day that I met her, she immediately asked me to join her in representing the organization at a workshop. At the end of the workshop, she asked me to stay on as part of the network.
This began my full-time work with Leymah in promoting peace. We organized trainings for women across the country. I moved from town to town. After forces overran Monrovia and killed innocents, we women took to the streets with the Peace Outreach Project, talking in markets, schools and mosques about the need to end the conflict.
Toward the end of 2002, we started a massive sit-in on the airfield that lasted for almost four years. As the mass actions for peace grew and began to claim the attention of the international community. Our partners, the American Jewish World Service, Catholic Relief Services, and others funded us to provide emergency assistance to women and internally displaced people in several camps in Monrovia. We used a portion of this funding to obtain skills training in psychosocial support and community organizing to make us more effective advocates, who could work for lasting change.
I often had to leave my family behind for work while the fighting continued. During this period, my kids saw atrocious killings. For example, my older son told me the rebels killed one of his friends and his mother while they all were hiding at the grey stone, a compound owned by the US embassy in Monrovia.
Finally, in 2004, I began to feel as if I was living in a sane world again. The war ended, and thanks to a grant from the American Jewish World Service, I had my first regular salary of $50/month, through the peace network. Now I am continuing my efforts, working across the continent to end sexual slavery and ensure basic medical services. And in a personal feat of great meaning to me, I graduated from the University of Liberia in 2011 with the Degree of Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Sociology.
Yes, I am a feminist, a peacemaker, an activist, and a defender of women’s rights. I am a college-educated mother of two girls and four boys. I am a proud citizen of Liberia, who was forged by its brutal civil war. We have come far but we have much work to do. Please stand with us as we realize our human rights here and around the world. Do you remember the moral of my life story? I’ll remind you: We can win our human rights.
Cecelia T. M. Danuweli is a grassroots activist in Liberia. She is in the United States this week as a guest of the American Jewish World Service for their celebration of International Human Rights Day: “Leading the Way, Women Organizing for Human Rights.”