In awarding the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to three women activists and leaders, the Nobel committee explained, "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men.” This year's winners exemplify what the committee termed the "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is president of Liberia and Africa's first democratically elected female leader. Leymah Gbowee is founder of a peace movement in Liberia that played an important role in ending that country's brutal civil war (and helped elect Sirleaf as president in 2005). Tawakul Karman is a Yemeni journalist and pro-democracy activist who for years has led a non-violent protest movement against the autocratic government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Nobel committee is no stranger to controversy, and this award will undoubtedly bring grumblings. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has done much to rebuild her country. Her achievements include negotiating debt relief and starting a truth and reconciliation commission to address crimes during Liberia's civil war. But she is in the last days of a tough reelection campaign that has underscored local frustrations about the slow pace of progress in Liberia. Her challengers have slung accusations of corruption at her administration, which she has vigorously denied. The awarding of the Peace Prize just days before the vote is bound to give her campaign a boost, but it will also fuel the opposition's charges that the election is not being played on a level field. As for Gbowee, the Prize citation notes that she "mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious lines” to help end the civil war and ensure women's participation in elections.
The choice of Tawakul Karman is also controversial. Karman, a thirty-two-year-old mother of three, catapulted to international attention when student demonstrations she had been leading for several years in front of Yemen's Sanaa University became the nucleus for the much larger protest movement this winter and spring. Her brief arrest in January incensed her supporters, who took to the streets in large numbers and helped propel the protests. Karman has been called the "mother” of Yemen's revolution. She is also a member of Islah, a conservative Islamist movement that calls for reforms in accordance with Islamic principles. There have been tensions within the opposition movement over Karman's prominent role in the group and the intentions of Islah.
The chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, told the Associated Press that Karman's award should be seen as a signal that both women and Islam have a role to play in the ongoing Arab revolts. In all, this year's winners are another acknowledgment of what many in the development and foreign policy community have known for years: that without the full participation of women, peace, stability, and economic development will remain elusive.