Three very courageous women

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:55 am IST

Published - October 11, 2011 01:07 am IST

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 has been won by three women, each of whom has shown sustained moral and physical courage in situations of war and state violence. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an economist with a Harvard master's in public administration, survived imprisonment and a rape attempt during the brutal regime of Samuel Doe. She went on to win the Liberian presidency in 2004, becoming Africa's first elected woman head of state. She immediately started rebuilding a shattered country. Declaring that empowered women were essential to a civilised and safe society, she got 40 per cent of girls into free compulsory elementary schooling, and tightened the laws on rape and women's property rights. The second winner is also a Liberian; Leymah Gbowee, a social worker-turned activist, started a women's prayer for peace on a football field in 2002. This became a daily event, even though soldiers involved in the savage civil war could have fired on the women while driving past. Ms Gbowee then led her followers to surround the hall used for peace talks until the delegates signed a deal. She also advised Liberian women to deny sex to their men until they stopped war, in which mass rape was widespread. The third winner, Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, a journalist-activist, has campaigned for women's rights in a conservative society. She became an iconic figure in her country's protests, which have resulted in the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh announcing his departure. Ms Karman has often been jailed and has survived an assassination attempt. Earlier this year, her response to Mr. Saleh's comment that female protesters had been “mingling with men” was to lead 10,000 women in a march down a highway.

Women laureates have been a rarity in the history of Nobel prizes. Only 15 women, including these three, have won the Peace Prize in 110 years. This year's prize is also the first to go to any African since the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai was honoured in 2004. The very nature of the Peace Nobel means that some controversy is usually involved. As Ms Johnson Sirleaf is standing for re-election, Liberian opposition leaders say the Committee is interfering in domestic politics. Ms Karman, for her part, belongs to an Islamist party, Islah, which has links with the Muslim Brotherhood. By choosing someone from Yemen — and not, say, Bahrain, where repression is equally severe but the ruler is favoured by major western countries — the Committee has shown that its decision might not be as free of political considerations as it claims it to be. None of this takes away from the fact that these three very courageous women eminently deserve the Prize.

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