Nobel Peace Prize highlights role of women in achieving peace, democracy

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a trio of women's rights activists: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen.

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    In this June 27 file photo, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman chants slogans along with antigovernment protesters, during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Karman have won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Friday.
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The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize to three women for promoting women’s rights through peacebuilding work in Liberia and Yemen, and passed over contenders from the launching pads of the Arab uprisings – Tunisia and Egypt.

The award, which had only been bestowed on a dozen women before today, was shared between Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president; Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized women across ethnic and religious lines to bring an end to war in Liberia; and Tawakkul Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Chains, who played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and democracy and peace in Yemen.

Committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland acknowledged the widespread expectation that the award would be given to at least one Arab Spring activist, but said that the committee's larger goal was to highlight that the freedom and rights of women was an important prerequisite to a society becoming truly democratic.

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“We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it into a particular context and I think the most important context maybe," said Mr. Jagland. "If we fail to include the women in the revolutions of democracy, there will be no real democracy. This is the most important issue in all of the Arab world, namely the oppression of women."

He also pointed out the disproportionate violence against women in conflict and wartime, citing the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 of October 2000, which defined such violence as an international security issue. By giving the award to these three women, he said, the committee had focused on women’s rights and those who “were courageous enough long before the whole media was there.”

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Yemeni activist: "I dedicate it to all the martyrs of the Arab Spring"

The wave of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes referred to also as the Arab Awakening, was sparked by protests in Tunisia in December 2010, and quickly spread to Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen, among others.

“[Ms. Karman] has become a symbol of the upheavals that are now taking place in large parts of the Arab world,” said Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister.

Indeed, Karman accepted her prize on behalf of all the uprisings.

"I'm so happy with the news of this prize," she told BBC Arabic. "I dedicate it to all the martyrs and wounded of the Arab Spring… in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria and to all the free people who are fighting for their rights and freedoms."

Only 15 percent of Nobel peace laureates have been women

The award sets a historic precedent by going to three women for the first time. In the history of the prize, only 12 out of the 97 individuals who have received the prize were women.

But Geir Lundestad, Norwegian Nobel Institute director, says the committee did not feel pressured to find a female candidate this year, despite the dearth of winners in past years and the recent death of the last female winner of the prize, Wangari Maathai.

“The committee has had a long-term interest in finding more women,” says Mr. Lundestad. “But this cannot be artificial. You have to come up with the right candidates. But there was obviously a desire to increase the number of women. And we have taken a big step this year, so now there are 15 women.”

Committee chairman Jagland dismissed suggestions that the prize could have a direct effect on the Liberian general elections next week by promoting Mrs. Sirleaf, who is running for reelection on Oct. 11 as the Unity Party's presidential candidate.

“The committee has time and again represented that it does not look at domestic politics,” he says. “We only do look at those persons who have done most for the peace in the world according to Alfred Nobel’s will.”

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