The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on Friday to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen for their work on women’s rights.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee honoured the three women “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

“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,” the prize committee said.

Ms. Karman is a 32-year-old mother of three who heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains. She has been a leading figure in organising protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh that kicked off in late January as part of a wave of anti-authoritarian revolts that have convulsed the Arab world.

“I am very very happy about this prize,” Ms. Karman told The Associated Press. “I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people.”

By citing Ms. Karman, the committee appeared to be acknowleding the effects of the Arab Spring, which has challenged authoritarian regimes across the region. But citing the Arab Spring alone could have been problematic for the committee. The unrest toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But Libya descended into civil war that led to NATO military intervention. Egypt and Tunisia are still in turmoil. Hardliners are holding onto power in Yemen and Syria and a Saudi—led force crushed the uprising in Bahrain, leaving an uncertain record for the Arab protest movement.

Prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland noted that Ms. Kamran’s work started before the Arab uprisings.

“Many years before the revolutions started she stood up against one of the most authoritarian and autocratic regimes in the world,” he told reporters.

Johnson Sirleaf, 72, is a Harvard-trained economist who became Africa’s first democratically elected female president in 2005.

Liberia was ravaged by civil wars for years until 2003 and is still struggling to maintain a fragile peace with the help of U.N. peacekeepers.

Ms. Sirleaf was seen as a reformer and peacemaker in Liberia when she took office. She is running for re-election this month and opponents in the presidential campaign have accused her of buying votes and using government funds to campaign. Her camp denies the charges.

The committee cited Johnson Sirleaf’s efforts to secure peace in her country, promote economic and social development and strengthen the position of women.

Ms. Gbowee, who organised a group of Christian and Muslim women to challenge Liberia’s warlords, was honored for mobilising women “across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections.”

In 2009 she won a Profile in Courage Award, an honor named for a 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by John F. Kennedy, for her work in emboldening women in Liberia.

Yemen is an extremely conservative society but a feature of the Arab Spring uprising there has been a prominent role for women who turned out for protests in large numbers.

A resident of Taiz, a city in southern Yemen that is a hotbed of resistance against Saleh’s regime, Ms. Karman is a journalist and member of Islah, an Islamic party. Her father is a former legal affairs minister under Saleh.

She was briefly detained in January, for a few hours, for leading anti—Saleh protests and was released after protesters rallied to pressure authorities for her release.

During a February rally in Sanaa, she told the AP- “We will retain the dignity of the people and their rights by bringing down the regime.”

The complete text of the citation awarding the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 is to be divided in three equal parts between Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. 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.

In October 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325. The resolution for the first time made violence against women in armed conflict an international security issue. It underlined the need for women to become participants on an equal footing with men in peace processes and in peace work in general.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first democratically elected female president. Since her inauguration in 2006, she has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women. Leymah Gbowee mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections. She has since worked to enhance the influence of women in West Africa during and after war. In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the “Arab spring,” Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.

It is the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s hope that the prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman will help to bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and to realise the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent.

More In: International | News