Last month the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three inspirational women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and the first female head of state in Africa; Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist; and Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni women’s human rights defender. The three received the award “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” the Nobel committee said. “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence development at all levels of society.”
This recognition is long overdue but hopefully helps augment the perception of women as leaders.
This year’s prize was a refreshing and significant acknowledgement of the courageous female leaders out there who are struggling for a peaceful way forward where women and men are provided equal opportunities to flourish in society.
Inspired, I watched the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell again last night. I continue to be moved by the story of Leymah Gbowee and the women’s peace movement in Liberia, which was the catalyst for peace during the last war and eventually resulted in the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Mired in conflict and poverty, women came together to challenge armed rebels and corrupt leadership. Against all odds they transformed the future for the people of Liberia—especially for girls and women. As Leymah states toward the end of the film, they achieved the unimaginable.
In Yemen, an extremely conservative society that is especially oppressive for women, similar feats of bravery are taking place under the leadership of Tawakkul Karman. She is nicknamed the “Iron Lady” for her unyielding push for greater freedoms and women’s rights despite repeated imprisonment and an assassination attempt. In the end, her efforts will be a catalyst for change in Yemen, too.
It is difficult to comprehend the courage these three women possess. Not many people have the strength of character and conviction to challenge the status quo and persevere for a more just and peaceful society. Yet these women do, and there are many more like them around the world. I’m looking forward watching the new PBS series underway called Women, War and Peace. The series documents the under-reported stories of women who are transforming their societies. The Open Society Foundations provided seed funding for the program, which was developed in partnership with the creators of Pray the Devil Back to Hell. We believe that avenues for these types of stories to be documented and shared publicly are few and far between, but they are critical in helping to shape a future that includes women as leaders.
We at the Open Society International Women’s Program have had the great fortune to know many of these women and to support them. They are the leaders who risk their lives daily protecting and promoting women’s rights in conflict-affected areas around the globe. Their participation and commitment continues despite the challenges of their circumstances, the lack of resources, and the barriers to access at the peace tables. These days we hear increasing rhetoric about the importance of gender equity and women’s rights, and thanks is largely due to the continued efforts of many women’s advocates around the world. Unfortunately, the rhetoric hasn’t translated into practice.
As women seek to participate in the peace negotiations in Afghanistan or in the committee to draft the new constitution in Egypt, they are often blocked by those in power. Even if largely symbolic, the Nobel Prize this year is a significant step in acknowledging that women’s full participation is an imperative for the maintenance of international peace and security.