Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot and “peace warrior” Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
The three women will share the 2011 award “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” Norwegian Nobel Committee president Thorbjoern Jagland said in his announcement.
“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,” he added.
Sirleaf, 72, made history when she became Africa’s first elected woman president in 2005. She took over a nation traumatised by 14 years of brutal civil war that left 250,000 dead and economic devastation, with no electricity, running water or infrastructure.
Liberia’s “Iron Lady” won her Nobel just four days before she is set to face elections in her bid for a new term.
The Nobel Committee paid tribute to Sirleaf for her contribution “to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women.”
Sirleaf’s rise to power may however perhaps not have been possible without the efforts of 39-year-old activist Gbowee.
She led Liberia’s women to defy feared warlords, and pushed men toward peace by inspiring a large group of both Christian and Muslim women to wage a sex strike in 2002 during one of Africa’s bloodiest wars.
The Nobel Committee hailed Gbowee for having “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.”
Her campaign called for an immediate ceasefire, dialogue between government and rebels and the deployment of an intervention force at a time when a handful of peace agreements had failed.
In 2003, under Gbowee’s leadership, the group managed to force a meeting with Taylor, getting him to promise he would attend peace talks in Ghana.
Later she mobilised women to vote in an election which saw Sirleaf become Africa’s first elected female president.
Tawakkul Karman is a 32-year-old Yemeni journalist and activist who has braved several stints in prison in her struggle for women’s rights, press freedoms and the release of political prisoners in her country.
The Nobel jury hailed her for “in the most trying circumstances, both before and during the ‘Arab Spring’… (playing) a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.”
Karman, the first-ever Arab woman to receive the honour, told Al-Arabiya television she wanted to “dedicate it to all the activists of the Arab Spring,” — a reference to the protesters who took to the streets in several Arab countries demanding democracy.
Since the beginning of the year the Arab Spring uprising has toppled or severely shaken a number of authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.
Karman has not left Sanaa’s Change Square — the focal point of demonstrations against president Ali Abdullah Saleh — for four months for fear of being hunted by gunmen loyal to the embattled president.
The journalist who in 2005 established a group called “Women Journalists without Chains,” has become a leading figure in the uprising against the veteran leader. She continues to head demonstrations demanding his immediate ouster.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg hailed the choice of the trio.
“I see this prize as a recognition of women all over the world who are fighting for women’s rights, who are fighting for democracy and human rights, and a recognition of the vital work women do in peace and reconciliation work,” he said.
The three women will receive their awards, each consisting of a diploma, a gold medal and a third of the 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.48 million, 1.08 million euros) prize money at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of prize founder Alfred Nobel.