Three amazing women have won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman. The prize has been awarded to them “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”. Sirleaf and Gbowee are from Liberia which suffered under violent civil war from 1989 through 2003. Karman is from Yemen where people have risen up and demanded a regime change, democracy and peace for all Yemenis. Their struggle is ongoing, but Karman has had an ongoing role in making the voice of women heard since 2005.
Between 1901 and 2011, 826 individuals and 20 organizations have been honored with a Nobel Prize or the Prize of Economics Sciences also given by the Nobel Committee. A few individuals and organizations have been honored more than once. Of all of these, to date only 43 women have been awarded either a Nobel Prize or the Prize in Economic Sciences, fifteen of these women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Almost half of these awards, 21, have been awarded since 1990. It looks like perhaps women are finally being noticed for the excellent things they can achieve when given the chance.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the current president of Liberia. She studied economics and public administration in Liberia and in the United States. She served as Assistant Minister of Finance and Minister of Finance in Liberia until the military coup in 1980. After making remarks critical of the new leader Samuel Doe and the ruling People’s Redemption Council, she fled the country and worked at various financial institutions including the World Bank and Citibank.
During 1985 and 1986, Sirleaf returned to Liberia where she ran for vice-president, but was arrested and convicted for sedition because of her criticism of the Doe regime. She was released because of international pressure and removed from the presidential ticket, but ran for senate instead. Although she won her Senate seat, she refused to take it in protest of the fraudulent elections which had returned Doe to power. She was imprisoned again and when released 8 months later fled the country. In 1992, Sirleaf began work for the UN. During this time she held a number of positions where she was involved in investigations into the Rawandan genocide, as well as the effect of sexual assault and conflict on women and women’s role in peace building.
The First Liberian Civil War in 1989 brought Charles Taylor to power. Sirleaf initially supported him, but came to oppose his rule and returned to Liberia for the 1997 presidential elections. The election results were controversial and Sirleaf again went into exile. The Second Liberian Civil War began in 1999 and conflict continued until the summer of 2003. Charles Taylor resigned and fled to Nigeria and in October vice-president Moses Blah, then acting president, turned the government over to the National Transitional Government of Liberia. In 2005, Sirleaf again ran for president for the Unity Party. After a runoff election against George Weah, she won 59% of the vote. The election was contested, but Sirleaf was finally declared president on November 23, 2005. Sirleaf won a second term in office in 2011.
Leymah Gbowee was 17 when the First Liberian Civil War broke out. After the war, she heard of a training program given by UNICEF to help victims of war cope with their tragedies. She was also the victim of abuse and looking for peace and a way to support her children fled to Ghana. They were basically homeless refugees and eventually returned to Liberia. When she returned she became a volunteer in the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program run by St Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia. While volunteering, she worked on her Associate degree in Social Work, which she received in 2001. The pastors and lay people of the Lutheran church joined with the Christian Health Association of Liberia to try to help heal the damage done during the conflict.
All war is brutal, but the Liberian conflict made extensive use of child soldiers and many women and girls were victims of rape as a weapon of war. Gbowee realized that “if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers.” She began reading about peaceful protest, authors such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. She also met other people who were committed to peace, such as Thelma Ekiyor of Nigeria who organized the first meeting of the Women in Peacebuilding Network. Ekiyor named Gbowee as coordinator of the Liberian Women’s Initiative.
In 2002, Gbowee had a dream where God told her to “Gather the women and pray for peace.” She thought the dream was for others to act on, but the women she was working with and whom she respected convinced her that God expected her to act on it. Soon, Gbowee and a few allies, including Asatu a Muslim woman, began going around to churches and mosques after services, and into the market, to talk to women. They handed out fliers with both words and pictures for the women who couldn’t read. Their flyers said “We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!”
Their movement the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, started with local women and spread. They dressed in white and tried many different strategies, constantly re-evaluating what worked and didn’t. They sang and prayed both Christian and Muslim prayers, staged protests, had sit-ins and even went on a sex strike. Finally, they occupied a soccer field that President Charles Taylor had to pass every day going to and from the Capitol. Charles Taylor finally agreed to meet with them. They extracted a promise from him to go to the peace talks in Ghana.
In June 2003, Gbowee led a delegation of women to the peace talks. They didn’t have a seat at the table, but kept up their demonstrations outside the building. As the talks stalled inside the luxury hotels where the men were meeting, the women kept up their vigil outside in the heat through the month of July. Finally, the women moved inside and blocked the door. Locking their arms together they told the men that they wouldn’t let them out. When the men threatened to break through, their last resort was to take off their clothes. In Gbowee’s book Mighty Be Our Powers, she explains that “In Africa, it’s a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself.” The entire atmosphere of the talks changed and eventually an agreement was reached. The Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed on August 18, 2003 and the Liberian War was officially over. There is still much work to be done. After her election this year President Sirleaf announced “a national peace and reconciliation initiative” headed by Leymah Gbowee. You can see a delightful interview with Leymah and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show here.
Tawakkol Karman has been fighting for human rights in Yemen for a number of years. Although the Arab Spring has brought the fight for democracy and freedom in the Middle East to our attention in the west only this year, it is not new to Karman. She is a married mother of three with an undergraduate degree in commerce and a graduate degree in political science. In 2005 she founded Women Journalists Without Chains along with 7 other female journalists to promote freedom of expression and democratic rights. This group has documented Yemeni abuses of freedom of the press since 2005. She has openly criticized the government for trials targeting journalists and led demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square, in Yemen’s capitol Sana’a since 2007.
She is a strong advocate for freedom of the press and for women’s issues, such as education and a ban on forcing women younger than 17 to marry, and has spoken out against government corruption. In January of 2011 after organizing protests against the current government, Karman was arrested and held in chains for 36 hours. Protests and demonstrations through out the country called for her release. She has continued to lead demonstrations.
In a June18 article in The New York Times article “Yemen’s Unfinished Revolution,” she has also been critical of the role of the US in continuing the status quo and putting the “War on Terror” over the human rights of the people of Yemen. In the article she expresses deep regard and respect for the US and its government, as well as US security concerns, and asks that they engage the democratic movement in Yemen rather than depending only on the members of the old regime. She asks the same thing of the government of Saudi Arabia.
Karman was in New York in October to demonstrate in front of the UN against giving amnesty to Saleh and calling for his prosecution in the International Criminal Court. During that meeting the UN Security Council signed a resolution condemning Saleh’s government, but supporting an initiative that would give him immunity. While Karman was in New York, she gave an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now which you can see here.
Women are coming into their own in many ways. These three women demonstrate courage that is inspiring. May they inspire us to be all that we can be.
Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee written with Carol Mithers.
This Child Will Be Great by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
“The Nobel Peace Prize 2011”. Nobelprize.org. 13 Dec 2011
“Facts on the Nobel Peace Prizes”. Nobelprize.org. 13 Dec 2011
Tawakkul Karman on wikipedia
Leymah Gbowee on wikipedia
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on wikipedia