Three women share 2011 Nobel Peace Prize

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By a Newsnet reporter

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee for their work on women’s rights.

The Nobel Prize 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.”

Tawakkul Karman, 32-year-old mother of three who heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains said: “I am very very happy about this prize.  I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people.”  At 32, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman is one of the youngest recipients of the prize – she was recognised for her role in the Arab Spring.  She has been a leading figure being part of a wave of anti-authoritarian revolts that have convulsed the Arab world in organizing protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Ms Karman said she was astonished at the protests: “I could never imagine this. In Yemen, women are not allowed out of the house after 7pm, now they are sleeping here [in Change Square at the height of the protests in April]. This goes beyond the wildest dream I have ever dreamt, I am so proud of our women.”

An outspoken journalist and human rights activist campaigning for press freedoms, staging weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners from jail – a place she has been several times herself – long a thorn in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s side.

“The extremist people hate me. They speak about me in the mosques and pass round leaflets condemning me as un-Islamic. They say I’m trying to take women away from their houses.”

“I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain,” she says.

She has received several death threats in a country with an Al-Qaida presence: “People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion to wear the veil; it is a traditional practice so I took it off.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 72, a Harvard-trained economist who became Africa’s first democratically elected female president in 2005.  Liberian President Johnson-Sirleaf’s award was not unexpected.  She has been widely praised for leading Liberia out of years of civil war and brutality and for reducing rampant corruption.

The award comes six years after she became Africa’s first elected female head of state following the end of Liberia’s 14-year civil war.  She faces a presidential poll this month.  She was seen as a reformer and peacemaker in Liberia when she took office – Liberia was ravaged by civil wars for years until 2003.  The country is still struggling to maintain a fragile peace with the help of UN peacekeepers.

While out campaigning, the diminutive grandmother figure is often dwarfed by her party officials and bodyguards but over a political career spanning almost 30 years she has earned her steely nickname, the “Iron Lady” by her supporters.

She was imprisoned in the 1980s for criticising the military regime of Samuel Doe and then backed Charles Taylor’s rebellion before falling out with him.

Leymah Gbowee, 39, Liberian peace activist, organized a group of Christian and Muslim women to challenge Liberia’s warlords.  Organising a peace movement that brought an end to Liberia’s second civil war in 2003 – she formed Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, praying and singing with women in a fish market.  She mobilised women from across Liberia’s ethnic and religious divides to call for an end to Liberia’s brutal 14-year civil war.

Amid the shells and bullets, they prayed and protested for days on end, demanding that the conflict between former President Charles Taylor and rebel forces stop.  Under her leadership, the women managed to force a meeting with President Charles Taylor and extract a promise from him to attend peace talks in Ghana

Ms Gbowee said that she was “confused”, “humbled” and for the first time in her life “out of words”.

“This is a victory for women’s rights everywhere in the world.  What could be better than three women winning the prize?  This is the recognition that: ‘We hear you, we see you, we acknowledge you,’ she added.

The Nobel prize committee said: “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”