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The significance of the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to three women from the global south extends way beyond the Arab world and Africa. For me, the award to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman is recognition of the great achievements of these women in challenging contexts of repressive and post-conflict settings, and of the specific ways in which conflict, peace-building and post-conflict processes affect women. The award also recognises the peace and security activism and strategic advocacy of the global women’s movement, and of national and local women’s groups, in Africa and the Middle East since the late 1990s. It is this kind of activism that has succeeded in placing issues of gender equality; gender-based violence and meaningful participation for women on the global security agenda.
As the first elected woman president in the African continent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led Liberia through the difficult challenges of post-conflict reconstruction; and she did so with grace, firm leadership, and with a certain humility and firm practicality that is reminiscent of the attitudes of busy and wise grandmothers in many parts of the continent. I listened to her speak at the United Nations in New York last year, where she outlined some of the milestones Liberia has achieved under her leadership, and discussed the challenges, too. In the discussion that followed her talk, a young New York-based Liberian woman lawyer spoke of the role of the African diaspora in rebuilding Liberia and said she really wanted to contribute to reconstruction in the country but that she did not know how to go about doing that! President Sirleaf’s answer was ‘I am pleased to give you an air-ticket to travel to Liberia’; then asked the young lawyer to see her after the event!
Leymah Gbowee's activism for peace in Liberia is documented in the award winning film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and Gbowee’s book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, is inspiring women in conflict settings across and beyond the African continent. When the Liberian war started, Leymah Gbowee was only 17 years old and she later said the war transformed her from a child into an adult ‘in a matter of hours’. She later became a trauma counsellor for child soldiers and wrote about her work earlier this year on opendemocracy in Child soldiers, child brides: wounded for life. As a member of the Women in Peace Building Network, she worked with other Liberian activists to organize both Muslim and Christian women in a movement that was able to pressurize the dictator Charles Taylor into promising to take part in peace talks in Ghana, and the warring parties to reach a peace agreement. So painful and inspiring, so resonant to the experiences of many women in areas affected by war, Pray the Devil Back to Hell can bring an entire audience to tears. I remember watching the documentary film last year in Juba, South Sudan, at a ‘Sisterhood for Peace’ conference that My Sister’s Keeper organized, which brought together women from different parts of Sudan, including Darfur, South Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, Eastern Sudan, as well as women protesting the building of a dam in Hamadab, Northern Sudan. After the film, most of the Darfuri women were in tears as they said what they saw reminded them of their own experiences. Some of the most meaningful and difficult discussions followed the documentary.
Tawakkul Karman’s activism started at the grassroots level, in response to the tyranny of a tribal leader who forced the local population out of their land in the Ibb area of Yemen. Her activism continues in a context where women’s public roles are curtailed. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Tawakkul, the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, received so many of the congratulations and salutations - many in Arabic - on the twitter-style ‘Greetings to the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates’ on the official Nobel website. The recognition of Tawakkul's work as a journalist and human rights and democracy activist, acknowledges the strong role youth and women are playing in the Arab spring protests. While I do not necessarily share her political convictions, Tawakkul Karman is one of many courageous activists working in challenging circumstances. Despite this important role, women and women’s groups in countries like Egypt have protested their exclusion from decision-making and the neglect of women’s human rights following the protests. The Nobel Committee is conscious of this fact. The chair of the Prize committee Thorbjoern Jagland told the Associated Press, “We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context. Namely, if one fails to include the women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy.”
For me, this year's Nobel Peace Prize speaks to the gender-specific impact on women of conflict, repression, and the political processes of peace-building, post-conflict reconstruction, and building truly inclusive democracy. The awarding of this year's Prize recognises the price paid by women in the struggle for democracy - including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia; Zimbabwe, South Sudan and my country, Sudan. In Sudan, women activists and journalists are often the targets of government violence . In Darfur, the Blue Nile, and South Kordofan, women have been the subject of killings, forced displacement, and gender-based violence, and now whole communities are facing a looming food crisis.
The Prize also honours the consistent organizing and strategic advocacy around peace and security by women’s and peace groups at the global, regional, and national levels. It is not a coincidence that the Nobel Committee’s citation includes a reference to UN SCR 1325 on women, peace and security which emphasizes the gender-specific impact of conflict on women, and the importance of women’s participation at all levels in peace-processes and in post-conflict reconstruction. And so as women’s groups and activists commemorate the eleventh anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the jubilation and celebration of the accomplishments and contributions of Leymah Gbowee, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman, should energize activists even further to push governments, political parties and movements to make gender equality central in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction, and to ensure women’s human rights and full participation in decision making at all levels to build democratic reform. Indeed, as the Nobel Committee stated in a press release on 7 October: “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.”
‘Mighty be our Powers’
The struggle continues.
This article is part of openDemocracy 50.50's new dialogue, Our Africa: a changing continent through women's eyes
Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee is published by Beast Books (September 2011)
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