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2011 Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to Three Activist Women
Photos by - Left: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times; center: Jane Hahn for The New York Times; right: Yahya Arhab/EPA
“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.” (Citation, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize)
October 11, 2011
LONDON — The Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was awarded on Friday to three campaigning women from Africa and the Arab world in acknowledgment of their nonviolent role in promoting peace, democracy and gender equality. The winners were Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa’s first elected female president — her compatriot, peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman of Yemen, a pro-democracy campaigner.
They were the first women to win the prize since Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, who died last month, was named as the laureate in 2004.
Most of the recipients in the award’s 110-year history have been men and Friday’s decision seemed designed to give impetus to the cause for women’s rights around the world.
“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,” said the citation read by Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who heads the Oslo-based Nobel committee that chooses the winner of the $1.5 million prize.
In a subsequent interview, he described the prize as “a very important signal to women all over the world.”
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf is nearing the end of a heated re-election campaign and Monrovia, the Liberian capital, saw her opponents join a big rally before Tuesday’s vote. Mr. Jagland said the election had not influenced the committee’s decision, calling the ballot there a “domestic consideration.” Analysts in Liberia have described the president’s re-election prospects as uncertain, although Friday’s announcement from Oslo could change that But the Nobel committee’s decision underscored the gap between local perceptions of her — it is not hard to find critics of the president in Liberia — _ and the view from abroad.
Indeed, her success in securing forgiveness for billion of dollars worth of Liberian debt and the change she has effected in Liberia’s brutal international image are less appreciated in Monrovia than among outsiders. Her campaign has denied opponents’ claims of corruption.
As the prize was announced, Bushuben Keita, a spokesman for Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party, declared: “We are dancing. This is the thing that we have been saying, progress has been made in Liberia. We’ve come through 14 years of war and we have come to sustained peace.
“This is proof that she has been doing well, there’s no cheating in this, this comes from other people. She’s doing very, very well. Her progress has been confirmed by the international community.”
In Yemen on Friday, Ms. Karman, 32, sat in a tent where she has been living since February as part of the sit-in organized to press demands for change. “This is the victory of our peaceful revolution,” she said. “I am so happy and I give this award to all of the youth and all of the women across the Arab world, in Egypt, in Tunisia.”
“We cannot build our country or any country in the world without peace,” she said.
The announcement in the Norwegian capital, followed intense speculation that the prize would be awarded variously to a figure from the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, the European Union or exclusively to Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, 72, a Harvard-educated economist, who has cast herself as a pioneer in African politics.
In a recent interview with the Paris-based monthly magazine, The Africa Report, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf said she did not “want Africa to return to the men’s club” and forecast that women would take over in more African countries.
“It will definitely happen in other countries because many women are now vying for the presidency, which didn’t happen much in the past,” said Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, who was inaugurated in January 2006.
More than 250 people were nominated for the prize this year and there had been speculation that it would reward bloggers or other activists from the Middle East using social networking sites and other Internet platforms as they challenged entrenched dictatorships, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt.
But if the committee had singled out the Arab Spring, it could have courted criticism that, far from rewarding efforts toward peace, it had chosen a phenomenon whose final outcome in Egypt and Tunisia is far from clear, and which has provoked bloodletting and strife in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Mr. Jagland said the 2011 prize recognized those “who were there long before the world’s media was there reporting.”
But other Middle East activists saw a broader message. “Giving it to Yemen means giving it to the Arab Spring,” said an Egyptian activist, Asmaa Mahfouz , who had also been nominated for the prize, Reuters reported. “This is an honor to all of us and to all Arab states.”
In Yemen, Ms. Karman has been widely known as a vocal opponent of the pro-American regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh since 2007, heading a human rights advocacy group called Women Journalists Without Chains. But it was only earlier this year — before the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had gained momentum — that her readiness to take to the streets inspired thousands more in Yemen to do the same.
Her brief arrest by the authorities in January incensed many people and is credited by some analysts in Yemen with starting the widespread protests that have convulsed the impoverished land since. Some of her supporters have labeled her “The Mother of Revolution.”
Since then, however, she has become a contentious figure, criticized even by some in the anti-Saleh opposition and her share in the prize could stir further debate among anti-government activists.
In Liberia, Ms. Gbowee, 39, was cited by the Nobel committee for uniting Christian and Muslim women against her country’s warlords. As head of the Women for Peace movement, she was praised for mobilizing women “across ethic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war” that raged for years in Liberia until its end in 2003 and for ensuring “women’s participation in elections.”
Her organization was founded in 2002 when Ms. Gbowee rallied women to sing and pray to protest fighting in a fish market. Her selection “is something that all Liberians will be proud of,” said Vabah Gayflor, the country’s minister for gender and development, Reuters reported. “Women all over Africa and the world will be proud.”
The A.P. quoted Ms. Gbowee’s assistant, Bertha Amanor, as calling her “a warrior daring to enter where others would not dare.”
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf was broadly perceived as a reformer and peacemaker when she took office after several years in exile, during which she worked as a World Bank economist.
“It’s good news for the Liberian people,” said Emmanuel Ogbodu, a teacher, standing by the side of the road in the ramshackle seaside capital. “It’s a good way for peace in Liberia. Since she got in the chair, for me, we are experiencing peace. So I think she deserved it. Through her, peace came,” said Mr. Ogbodu.
Immediate reaction in Montrovia was muted as the news was slow to spread. But some who had heard expressed satisfaction. “I appreciate her highly, very well,” said Kona Ndoma, a civil servant.
“She has done very much for developmental purposes. So now, we go for the second term, please,” said Mr. Ndoma. “She stabilized peace. There is no gunfire at all.”
A woman selling fritters by the side of the road, Christiana Sami, said: “She deserves it, because she has developed the area. She’s done some important things.” A student, Grace Kollie, 18, walking to school, said: “She increased the education system in Liberia. She also carried on good development in the country.”
Forecasts of the winner are rarely accurate. In 2009, the committee stunned Nobel-watchers by awarding the prize to President Obama.
Last year’s winner was the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo — a choice that infuriated the Chinese authorities and prompted them to take reprisals against Norway. Mr. Liu was not allowed to leave China to receive the prize and was represented on stage at the award ceremony last December by an empty chair.
In the past the prize has not infrequently been split among several recipients, including the 1994 prize shared by Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, the 1978 award to Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin and the 1973 prize to Henry A. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho.