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Roger Alford

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Women Activists in Africa and Middle East Win Nobel Peace Prize

Posted: 10/09/11 01:01 PM ET

"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 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."

This announcement is most welcome news. It continues a significant trend of awarding more Nobel Peace Prizes to women. Since the end of the Cold War, 28% (8 of 28) of all Peace Laureates have been women. That compares to 14% (5 of 36) during the Cold War and just 5% (2 of 38) prior to World War II. (These numbers exclude institutional laureates, of course).

Of the fifteen women who have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the early laureates (Bertha von Suttner, Jane Addams, and Emily Greene Balch) were all leaders of the pacifist movement. (Addams was also famous as the mother of the modern social work movement). During the Cold War there were a mix of female recipients, including anti-nuclear activist Alva Myrdal, Northern Ireland peace activists Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, and most famously, servant to the poor Mother Teresa. More recently, as a leader of the movement to ban landmines, Jody Williams follows in the tradition of earlier anti-war laureates, especially Myrdal. We also now have a very different kind of female laureate: the human rights and democracy dissidents who promote the role of women in society. They include Aung San Suu Kyi, Rigoberta Tum, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, and two of today's three laureates, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf falls into a category by herself: the first major female political figure to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. Only Suu Kyi comes close to Sirleaf in this respect, as the people's choice for Burmese Prime Minister who was denied the opportunity by the Burmese military junta.

Today's awards are also notable in terms of race. Gbowee, Sirleaf and Maathi are the only three black female laureates. Because Ebadi is Persian, Karman ranks as the first Arab female laureate.

As for the biographies of each of these women, their stories are now circulating the globe. From my own perspective, I was hoping that the Nobel Committee would identify an appropriate individual who was linked to the Arab Spring, and the Committee did not disappoint with Tawakkul Karman. She's one of the leading human rights activists in Yemen, repeatedly jailed and tirelessly fighting for democracy and women's rights in Yemen. "I give this award for all the youth in the Arab world - in Egypt, in Libya, Syria and Yemen," Karman said on hearing the news of her selection. "All the youth and women, this is a victory for our demand for citizenship and human rights." If you watch even a few minutes of this report on Karman you cannot help but be impressed.

But the Nobel Committee decided to place the Arab Spring in the larger context of women activists. Leymah Gbowee promoted the cause of women in Liberia's civil war, convincing both Christian and Muslim women to unite against Liberian warlords who were destroying the country. You can read her story here and watch below a trailer of the movie "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" that details her work with the women of Liberia.

The third laureate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is the best known, serving as the first and currently only female head of state in Africa. You can buy her memoir here. There's also a great interview of Sirleaf by Time embedded below where she discusses what her presidency means for the women of Africa. When asked whether Africa would be more peaceful if more women were in power her answer: "I have no doubt about that. That can be a short answer. When women have equal qualification, experience, capacities, they bring to their task a certain dimension that may be missing in men, and that's the sensitivity to humankind. Maybe it comes from being a mother."

It's a great day for the Nobel Peace Prize, for democracy in Africa and the Middle East, and for the fight for women's equality around the world.