Why women deserve more Nobel Peace Prizes

Three women won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, seven years after the last award for a woman. They were honored for work on universal ideals, not just helping women, reversing the image of women as victims.

Three women won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, seven years after another women won the award. Is the Nobel committee sending a subtle message?

The common thread may be that these women worked on universal goals for both sexes, such as peace (in Liberia) and freedom (in Yemen). The awards reflect a slow shift in many countries to go beyond female activism that stigmatizes women as simply victims.

Women have long been activists for peace, in large part because they and their children are too often civilian victims of war. (That stereotype is countered, however, by the fact that a fifth to a third of activists in violent political groups since the 1960s have been women.)

Besides peace, mainstream women’s activism of the last 150 years has also focused on issues such as domestic violence and equality in the workplace and government. But in tackling such problems as being treated by men as sexual objects, activists also have objectivized women as victims.

Most UN Security Council resolutions that touch on women, for example, treat them as victims. Many global conferences on women are about what they lack, not what they can offer.

These latest Nobel prizes help reverse that impression. They supplant an image of victimhood with models of brave and wise leadership, female or not. “Biology is not destiny,” the prizes seem to say. Women can be protagonists in the public sphere, not just protectionists of their own kind.

In addition, a five-part, five-week documentary series begins on PBS Oct. 11 that will help raise up women as global peace actors. Titled “Women, War & Peace,” the program looks at female antiwar activists in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Africa.

One part is a film titled “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and it focuses on one of this year’s peace prize recipients, Leymah Gbowee. She helped found the Women in Peacebuilding Network which pushed for a peace settlement in Liberia using aggressive nonviolent means, including prayer.

Women are still not on all front lines of peace. One study of peacemaking efforts since the mid-1990s showed women involved in less than 8 percent of negotiating delegations. In the past 60 years, the Peace Prize has gone to only eight women.

The Nobel committee will need to award many more peace prizes to women in order to assist them in being global leaders against war.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly identified one place of the 2011 Peace Prize winners.)

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