Today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize going to three women champions of democracy and peace is another testament to the important role that women can and should play in peace-building and democratization. “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men,” read the Nobel Committee’s official announcement. This year’s winners are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and Africa’s first democratically elected female leader; Leymah Gbowee, founder of a peace movement in Liberia that played an important role in ending that country’s brutal civil war (and helped elect Sirleaf as president in 2005); and Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni journalist and pro-democracy activist who for years has led a non-violent protest movement against the autocratic government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
I have had the pleasure of meeting all three winners over the years. Since her election as president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been a frequent speaker at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussing not only the challenges of rebuilding her war-torn country, but the critical role that women have played in her political success. One topic she likes to focus on is Liberia’s Market Women’s Fund, an effort to improve the women-led informal markets in Monrovia. Backed by an international board of high-powered African and American women, the Market Women’s Fund has raised millions of dollars to improve market infrastructure, including provisions for water, toilets, electricity, and storage. The Fund has also supported adult education, financial literacy, and child care. The market women have been important political supporters of Sirleaf, campaigning on her behalf in 2005, and contributing to her strong election results. Now up for re-election, Sirleaf is facing a tough fight from opponents who attack her for not dealing sufficiently with graft in her administration, and who channel the public’s dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reconstruction. Sirleaf’s high-profile international reputation has not translated into equal popularity at home. The Nobel Peace Prize might put enough wind in her sails to carry her across the finish line in next week’s election ahead of her challengers, but polls show a tight race.
Leymah Gbowee, another remarkable Liberian, organized a grassroots movement of Christian and Muslim women to shame the country’s warlords into peace during Liberia’s civil war. Gbowee is the central character in the moving documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. When we screened the film at CFR a few years ago, she spoke movingly of how, every day, she encouraged more women to join her in sitting silently along the main avenue in Monrovia where the warlords inevitably passed by in their motorcades. Wearing white t-shirts to symbolize peace, her group grew to thousands of women, demanding with their silence that the warring factions move to negotiations. Gbowee then led a delegation of supporters to Ghana, where the peace talks were held, to continue to pressure the warlords to a peace agreement. Her movement is widely credited with pushing the stalled negotiations forward.
Tawakul Karman is equally determined and fearless. I met Karman this January in Sana’a, where she was leading protests against the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman had been doing this for several years, but with the winds of revolt spreading across the Arab world, her demonstrations took on new significance. Just after our visit, Karman was arrested and held for a few days in prison, but her supporters took to the streets with such determination that she was quickly released. Sometimes called the “mother” of Yemen’s revolution, Karman is also a member of Islah, a conservative Islamist movement, but she insists that she wants a secular democracy to replace Saleh’s corrupt government. “After Saleh, civil society and human rights must be given priority,” she told me in January. “Although I belong to an Islamic party, no way am I for a religious government. I am for a secular system, where the rights of all are protected.” Still, some members of Yemen’s opposition remain suspicious about Islah’s intentions. In awarding the Nobel Prize to Karman, Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said this should be seen as a signal that both women and Islam have a role to play in the ongoing Arab revolts. Karman graciously accepted news of the prize on behalf of all the “youth of revolution in Yemen.”
Sirleaf, Gbowee, and Karman are deserving of the prize in their own ways. I extend my congratulations to each of them for this honor.