October 7, 2011 11:11 am

Nobel Peace Prize honours women activists

A combination of three recent photos shows (from L) Yemen's Arab spring activist Tawakkul Karman, Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Liberian 'peace warrior' Leymah Gbowee who won the Nobel peace prize

The Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen have won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Norwegian Nobel committee honoured the three women “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”. They are the first women to win the prize for seven years.

Ms Johnson-Sirleaf became president of Liberia in 2005, and is Africa’s first and only elected female leader.

She took over as president after years of civil war left Liberia in ruins. The president negotiated significant debt relief, more than quadrupled the national budget, opened a large investigation into corruption and started a truth and reconciliation commission to address crimes committed during the civil war.

Ms Gbowee is an activist responsible for organising the peace movement that brought an end to the second Liberian civil war in 2003. The Nobel Prize citation said Ms Gbowee “mobilised and organised women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections”. She has since worked to enhance the influence of women in west Africa during and after war.

Tawakkul Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three, “has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen,” the citation read. She is an outspoken human rights activist and head of “Yemeni Women without Chains,” a group promoting women’s role in Yemeni civil society. Her arrest, alongside other prominent activists, in late January was a major catalyst for nationwide protests which have gripped the impoverished Arabian country for eight months.

Thorbjørn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who heads the Oslo-based Nobel committee that chooses the winner of the $1.5m prize, said it recognised their struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights. The world could not achieve lasting peace unless women achieved the same rights as men, he said.

Last year’s winner was the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo – a choice that infuriated the Chinese authorities and prompted them to take reprisals against Norway. Mr. Liu was not allowed to leave China to receive the prize and was represented on stage at the award ceremony last December by an empty chair.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf could be forgiven for having mixed feelings about the timing of her Nobel Peace Prize, writes William Wallis in Nairobi. Loftier international recognition of the role she has played as a woman presiding over a country ruined by men would be hard to find.

Yet coming just four days before she stands for re-election as Liberian president, the award also plays to one of her opponents’ principal criticisms: that she has focused on winning star status abroad rather than on fixing the broken nation she inherited when she became Africa’s first elected female leader.

Known as the “Iron Lady”, Ms Johnson-Sirleaf, 72, had an often bruising political career before ascending to the top. She was briefly finance minister in the 1970s, before heading into exile as a banker, returning to campaign in mid-1980s elections against the murderous and paranoid rule of Samuel Doe. After being jailed twice for sedition in 1986 she fled to the US where she rose to become Africa director of the UN Development Programme.

Ms Johnson-Sirleaf stood unsuccessfully for president against warlord Charles Taylor in 1997, finally winning against George Weah, the international football star, in 2005 after Mr Taylor had been persuaded to stand down, ushering an end to one of Africa’s nastiest and longest civil wars.

Although Ms Johnson-Sirleaf has steered her country through its most prolonged period of peace in decades, it has not been straightforward. She is the first to admit that the county she took over was a wreck. It was populated by drug-crazed combatants and their traumatised victims. The infrastructure, value system and state finances had collapsed. Rape was, and still is, prevalent.

With donor support, Liberia has been recovering steadily. But frustration with the pace of recovery has been evident in the run-up to the elections.

Ms Johnson-Sirleaf was forced to apologise for the role she played in supporting Mr Taylor in the earlier years of the rebellion he launched in 1989, after the country’s truth and reconciliation commission called for her to be barred from politics. With the steely determination that has characterised her career, she rode out that storm.

“She is a symbol for African women,” said Bineta Diop, one of Africa’s most prominent activists for women’s rights and peace building and leader of the campaigning group Femmes Afriques Solidarite.

“The politics of reconstruction and rehabilitation that she is developing put Liberian women at the forefront of change. This is what merits the recognition of the international community. Her actions will inspire other African women who aspire to overcome glass ceilings, fill the highest offices, and become leaders in their communities” she said.

Ms Johnson-Sirleaf originally pledged to stand for only one term as president. But she has campaigned this year, saying that it is not the time to change pilots before the aeroplane has landed.

“The World has rediscovered Liberia!” Ms Johnson-Sirleaf said in a statement on Friday after winning the prize. “As I look toward the future of Liberia I am filled with pride.”

Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee

Setting out to wreak “peaceful, feminine havoc”, some hail Leymah Gbowee’s sex strike for helping to end 13 years of shattering civil war in Liberia, writes Katrina Manson in Nairobi.

When she convinced women, Muslim and Christian, to refuse to have sex with their husbands until the violence stopped, the unconventional and controversial approach made waves.

Charles Taylor, the then president and now an indicted war criminal, was soon pressed into peace talks and Ms Gbowee, 39, herself said it gave men “a fresh motive to press for peace”.

Nine years on, Ms Gbowee wrote in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, that the greatest weapons of the Liberian women’s movement remain “moral clarity, persistence, and patience”. She argues that sisterhood, prayer and sex changed a nation at war.

“Women brought sanity to Liberia,” she said. “We must shame the mothers of the marauders into shaming their sons, into demanding an end to the marauding, an end to the rape, and an end to the atrocities.”

The timing of the award is perhaps curious, coinciding not with any particular initiative but rather publication of her memoir, three years after starring in a globally distributed documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about women’s struggle in Liberia.

Liberians in the capital on Friday nevertheless described Ms Gbowee, also a trauma counsellor, as a “she-ro”, a female hero, able to mobilise women en masse and cast them as powerful actors rather than victims.

“Much like the president, she has restored dignity and honour to womanhood in Liberia, and she deserves this prize,” said Robtel Pailey, a Liberian researcher who met Ms Gbowee this year.

Ms Gbowee’s campaign reflects the increasing recognition of violence against women in warzones across the world and efforts to get women into leadership and decision-making roles.

“Rape is a cheap, effective and silent weapon: today’s victims of war and conflict are overwhelmingly women and children,” Margot Wallström, UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, told the Financial Times.

“The way she can strategise and plan, with overview and drive; there you have a true general, but one that is for peace,” Ms Wallström said.

Since the sex strike, Liberia has passed a rape law and established a special courtroom to try rape cases alone. In the longer term Ms Gbowee, who was 17 when the war started, wants to focus on education and job creation for women.

She pointed to progress in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe and has high hopes for the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is widespread. “Women must create havoc there,” she said.

Tawakkul Karman

Yemeni Tawakkul Karman

Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni journalist and activist, has long been a thorn in the side of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, write Michael Peel in Abu Dhabi and Noah Browning in London. She has become a high-profile figure this year in the uprising against his 33-year rule.

A campaigner for press freedom and women’s rights for many years, her experience segued into a role mobilising the often bloody protests that are part of the political movements sweeping the Arab world.

Ms Karman’s long history of activism and focus on female advancement in the patriarchal Gulf region appears to have swung her the Nobel Peace Prize ahead of Arab activists from the opposition political movements that toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.

Murad al-Azzany, a professor and political analyst at the university in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, said: “Tawakkul Karman really deserves this award. She was the first one who went into the street and she was the first one who called on the youth to start a revolution in Yemen.”

Scion of a leading family in the country’s Islamist opposition, Ms Karman, 32, started a group called Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005, to campaign for a greater role for women in civil society. Ms Karman said she was propelled into activism partly by her anger over a land seizure south of Sana’a by a corrupt tribal leader. Her campaigns, which included protests outside jails demanding the release of prisoners of conscience, led to her detention in January this year.

Her arrest, alongside other prominent activists, was a catalyst for the nationwide protests which have gripped Yemen for eight months, with fighting between rival political, military and regional factions taking the country close to civil war.

“The country is a failing state,” she said at the time. “We protesters are trying to rescue it.”

Ms Karman is a senior figure in the protest-movement’s self-styled “transitional council,” and a renowned public speaker. Her indictments of corruption, poverty, and inequality in the country, the Arab world’s poorest, resound within Yemen and around the Arab world.

Despite her many supporters, a number of her fellow activists criticise her tactics. Some question whether her passion tips over at times into recklessness, such as leading protest marches in which demonstrators have been killed by security forces. Others, including many feminist campaigners, are dismayed by her links to Islah, the country’s main Islamist party.

Afrah al-Hariri, a female activist, said: “She is an excellent advocate for women, and a force in our revolution. But it would be better if she were independent. We wonder if the forces behind her support a truly popular revolution.”

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