Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in promoting women’s rights and peace.
Johnson-Sirleaf, 72, Gbowee, 39, and Karman, 32, were announced as winners of the 10 million-krona ($1.5 million) prize today by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo. They were honored for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” the committee said.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who was elected Africa’s first female president in 2005, has been rebuilding a country devastated by civil wars from 1989 to 2003 that killed an estimated 250,000 people. Liberia’s Gbowee, a mother of five and head of the Accra-based Women Peace and Security Network Africa, helped end the Liberian war by encouraging women to go on a sex strike, forcing men to listen to their wives’ pleas to stop fighting. She’s featured in “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a documentary about how Liberian women took on warlords and the regime of Charles Taylor during the civil war.
The recognition “will motivate women all over Africa, as well as the world, to be able to stand up to take leadership roles, to have the courage of their conviction in standing up for the principles in which they believe,” Johnson-Sirleaf told reporters.
Karman is a human rights activist and journalist. She has helped organize protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring that swept across North Africa to challenge the rule of President Ali Abdulla Saleh.
‘‘I dedicate this to all the people who have sacrificed their lives to the freedom of the country,’’ Karman said by phone from Sanaa. ‘‘This will help push young people to continue working for peace, democracy and freedom. This recognizes the role of youth in these countries.’’
Twelve women have won the peace prize out of a total 97 individuals, according to the Nobel website. Bertha von Suttner was the first woman to win 1905. The last woman, and African, to win was Wangari Maathai in 2004, who died last month.
‘‘Women today are the ones who suffer the most during conflicts and wars, notably due to rape and other violence and this has become a security concern of first order,’’ said Thorbjoern Jagland, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. ‘‘It’s the same theme that became important during the Arab Spring -- if women aren’t part of the democratization process, one can’t obtain full democracy.”
Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who died in 1896, and the first prizes were handed out in 1901.
Last year’s peace prize went to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for his struggle to promote human rights and democracy. The decision sparked a diplomatic spat between Norway and China. Liu has been serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese prison since 2009 on a charge of plotting to subvert the ruling Communist Party. U.S. President Barack Obama won two years ago for his efforts to strengthen diplomacy and cooperation. Other past laureates include Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard University-trained economist, said in a speech to the U.S. Congress in 2006 that Liberia, partly populated by repatriated U.S. slaves, would be “America’s success story” in Africa. In August 2003, President George W. Bush sent Marines to Liberia as peacekeepers after Charles Taylor agreed to demands to step down.
The turnaround has since helped attract more than $16 billion in investments in mining, farming, oil exploration and forestry industries and driven annual economic growth of 5 percent to 9.5 percent, according the president’s website.
“She deserves credit,” said Nana Ampofo, a London-based Liberia analyst with Songhai Advisory, by phone. “Much of this has depended on her ability to maintain and protect relationships with the donor community.”
Johnson-Sirleaf first held positions at the nation’s Treasury in 1965 before earning a Master’s Degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1971. She later became Finance Minister in 1979 and left the country after a military coup the following year. She has worked for Citibank in Kenya and for the World Bank in Washington. In 1992, she joined as director in Africa of the United Nations Development Program.
She briefly returned to contest elections in 1997, losing to warlord Charles Taylor and returning to exile. She came back again in 2003, when Taylor left the country, to head the Government Reform Commission and resigned from that job in 2005 for her successful presidential campaign.
“We are now going into our ninth year of peace, and every Liberian has contributed to it,” Johnson-Sirleaf told reporters. “We particularly give this credit to Liberian women, who have consistently led the struggle for peace, even under conditions of neglect.”
She’s running for re-election this month and in an Oct. 2 speech posted on her website said that “no one else could have done a better job than we have,” urging continued development and peace.
“It’s great PR for Liberia to have recognition for the gains that they’ve made,’ Ampofo said. ‘‘The fact they’re at peace and are having their second set of elections in five years, that’s an achievement.”
Johnson-Sirleaf is also chairwoman of the Mano River Union, an effort for political stability and economic cooperation between Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. She was a founding member of the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership, according to her website.
She was born in Monrovia, the capital, and is, according to her website, the granddaughter of a “traditional chief of renown” in western Liberia. She is divorced and has four sons and 11 grandchildren.
Fellow Liberian, Gbowee, arrived in Monrovia as a 17-year old and trained as a trauma counselor, working with former child soldiers from Taylor’s army. A founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding, she formed a coalition of Christian and Muslim women who sought to end the civil war, in part by encouraging women to go on a sex strike, according to the Oslo Freedom Forum.
“Leymah is a very humble person, she is not the public type,” Bertha Amanor, Gbowee’s personal assistant at the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, said in an interview. “Her role was paramount in ending the Liberian war.”
Her methods forced men to listen.
“When a man wants sex from you, they are prepared to listen to you,” Amanor said. “It was during the war. They were trying everything they could. They didn’t cook for the men.”
As a result of the strike, Taylor agreed to meet Gbowee, and promised to attend peace talks in Ghana. Gbowee this year described the events in her book “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.”
Karman is chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, and has organized weekly non-violent protests in front of Sanaa University since 2007. She started a text message service that sent news on human rights across Yemen, which was closed by the Telecommunications Ministry, according to her Facebook page.
“Tawakkul Karman is one of the women who represent the Arab Spring -- she’s an activist, she’s a journalist and she’s an expression of a new Yemen, where human rights and democracy have a much stronger role than women have had in many Arab countries up until today,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Oslo today.
Activists of the Arab Spring emerged as Nobel Peace Prize favorites after helping reshape the political map starting with the January revolt that ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The events then spread to Egypt to topple President Hosni Mubarak, sparked armed conflict in Libya to end Muammar Qaddafi’s rule and are threatening the Assad family’s hold in Syria as well as Saleh in Yemen.
“We will continue our struggle until we end the Saleh family rule that has destroyed our country for decades,” Karman said today.
The peace prize is the only award to be given in Oslo. The other prizes are announced in Stockholm, including one for economics established by Sweden’s central bank.