Take note of this historic day for today and for posterity: Three women leaders have won the Nobel peace prize.
The three include Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president of a country in Africa, peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia, and Tawakul Karman, a pro-democracy campaigner from Yemen.
As noted by the New York Times, they are the “first women to win the prize since Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, who died last month, was named as the laureate in 2004. Most of the recipients in the award’s 110-year history have been men, and the award seemed designed to give impetus to the cause for women’s rights around the world.”
“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,” said the citation read to reporters by Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who heads the Oslo-based Nobel committee that chooses the winner of the $1.5 million prize.
In a subsequent interview, he described the prize as “a very important signal to women all over the world.”
Its an oft-repeated sentiment but one that will only become reality as more women like Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman not only take the reins of leadership–as so many women do everywhere in the world everyday against all odds–but are also recognized and held up as examples that seed the dreams of women and girls everywhere.
Sirleaf has, among other things, committed herself to advancing gender equality by increasing the presence of women in politics and the judiciary, mandating free education for children, and setting up the Women Market Fund, in addition to implementing international conventions for the protection of women’s rights in Liberia, such as SCR 1325 of the UN Security Council, a landmark legal and political framework adopted by the United Nations in 2000 that acknowledges the importance of the participation of women and the inclusion of gender perspectives in peace negotiations, humanitarian planning, peacekeeping operations, post-conflict peacebuilding and governance.
Gbowee is the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra, Ghana. She is a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). During her tenure as coordinator for WIPNET/WANEP, Ms. Gbowee organized collaborative peace-building initiatives for a network of women peace builders from 9 of Liberia’s 15 counties. She also served as the commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Tawakal Karman, who was featured in TIME magazine in February of this year, is the chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization that defends human rights and freedom of expression, and a fierce advocate of Yemeni youth.
Karman told TIME she has protested hundreds of times, both in the country’s north and the south, but became particularly energized by the refusal of the government to intervene in the case of the Ja’ashin, a group of 30 families that were expelled from their village when the land was given to a tribal leader close to the President.
“I couldn’t see any sort of human rights or corruption report that could shake this regime. They never responded to one of our demands. It made it clear to me that this regime must fall.”
She also said watching the dictators in Tunisia, then Egypt, fall has given her, and the protest movement, a renewed energy. “The goal is to change the regime by the slogan we learned from the Tunisian revolution, ‘The people want the regime to fall.’ We are using the same methods and the same words from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. They taught us how to become organized.”
In response to the Nobel committee’s announcement, Bushuben Keita, a spokesman for Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party, declared:
“We are dancing. This is the thing that we have been saying, progress has been made in Liberia. We’ve come through 14 years of war and we have come to sustained peace. We’ve already started dancing.”
To Keita, I would say: Women around the world are dancing with you.