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Andrée Simon

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Iron Ladies of Peace

Posted: 12/13/2011 10:45 am

History was made in Oslo on Saturday, when the eyes of the world watched as three great women received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. These women -- President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen -- risked their lives to stand for peace and refused to accept a world of violence, oppression, and injustice. The stories of these three individuals are nothing short of inspiring, and have proven to the world that women have an important and undeniable role to play in peace-building.

So much history has been made this year, from the Arab Spring and the role women played in the uprisings for regime change, to the greater involvement of women on the global stage and Saturday's momentous award ceremony. Long before protests and revolutions shook the Arab world this year, Tawakkol Karman was a peaceful advocate for free speech in Yemen, arrested numerous times for speaking against President Saleh's regime. When civic unrest spread to her country, Karman became the face of the country's pro-democracy revolution, taking the lead in organizing rallies in Sanaa's Change Square and demanding Saleh step down. In a society where women and girls are often kept from public life, the "Iron Woman," as she is called by Yemenis, achieved a major victory last month when Saleh officially transferred power after 32 years of rule.

In 2001, with a 12-year civil war raging in her homeland of Liberia, Leymah Gbowee gathered Christian and Muslim women together to march and pray for peace. Despite threats made against them by the warlord Charles Taylor, Gbowee and the women held daily protests and rallies, demanding an end to the fighting that had killed over 200,000 people. Two years later, when peace talks between the combatants stalled, Gbowee formed a human chain with 200 women and surrounded the negotiations room, locking the men in until they had signed a peace agreement.

Following Gbowee's courageous stand for peace, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was able to return to Liberia from exile after the civil war ended. Known as the "Iron Lady of Africa," Sirleaf became the first woman elected President in Africa in 2005. Faced with a country whose institutions, infrastructure, and economy were obliterated after 14 years of war, Sirleaf set herself to the near-impossible task of rebuilding the country from the ground up. Along the way, she began a peace and reconciliation process and ensured that women for the first time were given real opportunities to take on new roles in the government and politics, participate in the economy, and attend school.

These three women are heroes, standing on the frontlines of the struggles for peace and human rights in their countries. And while we celebrate their incredible accomplishments, we remember that heroes don't always make the front pages, and that it is many of the unsung heroes whose acts of bravery and great human spirit not only made these successes possible, but are leading to just as inspiring changes around the world.

Behind the headlines, peace-building goes beyond signing a treaty, winning an election, or forcing a tyrant from power. Peace-building is the daily work of millions of women around the world, women who confront the worst that war brings to their lives with compassion and courage. For a Rwandan woman, it can mean raising six or seven orphans of the 1994 genocide by herself, having lost all of her own children and her husband in the conflict. For a Liberian woman, it can mean feeding and caring for the helpless, injured boy who admitted to murdering her daughter. For a Bosnian woman, it can mean moving back to the home she fled during the war and learning how to be neighbors with former enemies. For most women, it means putting aside their own sorrow and pain and focusing on the great human need around them. No one says peace is easy.

What is too often easy to forget is women are always the ones most affected by the devastation of war. They are frequently made victim to rape and violence as we see in Congo, and perhaps even more alarming, they are still poorly represented in formal peace processes. Women have represented fewer than 8 percent of participants in these processes and fewer than 3 percent of signatories. No woman has ever been appointed chief or lead mediator of UN-sponsored peace talks. These numbers reflect a failure to sufficiently address women's concerns in a post-conflict environment, which is why this year's Nobel Peace Prize recipients take on such a great magnitude in the ongoing efforts for equality.

At Women for Women International, we see the women most affected by conflict -- the ones facing despair on all sides and struggling to build a life in the turmoil of conflict and its aftermath. We believe these women, who have survived the worst in life, also have the strength to be their communities' and countries' best hope for peace. By giving them the tools and resources they need to work and earn an income, to actively participate in political life, and to heal emotionally from the effects of conflict, we know that women have the power to make lasting changes for peace in their families, communities, and societies. In worlds rocked by the chaos of fear, violence, and destruction, sometimes the greatest courage and strength are shown by those women who dare to hope that a more peaceful future is possible, who persevere with ironclad determination because for them, all is not lost.

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For more information about Andrée's work, please visit www.womenforwomen.org.