Why The Nobel Prize Isn't Just About Women's Rights

October 7, 2011

Yemen's Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian 'peace warrior' Leymah Gbowee, winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Today the Nobel Committee announced that it is awarding its Peace Prize to three women: Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkul Karman, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

While the fact that the prize is being awarded to three women is important, it is not the most important symbol of what today’s announcement represents. Sure, the number of women who have been honored in the prize’s history (twelve until today) pales in comparison to the number of men (eighty-five), and that disparity should be addressed.

But focusing exclusively on the numbers game as we congratulate Gbowee, Karman and Sirleaf misses the point entirely: these women are not honored today because they are women. They are honored for what their work represents in promoting a more peaceful, just world. Doing so as women, they are both at unique risk and offer unique solutions—but their work makes the world a better place for all.

Take Leymah Gbowee, who organized a massive movement of grassroots women—market women, Muslim women, Christian women—who demonstrated en masse to force the brutal dictator Charles Taylor—and the equally brutal rebel groups—to peace talks. Though the UN did not formally include Gbowee and Liberia’s peace women in the official peace talks that took place in Ghana, she and her “troops” set up camp outside and locked the warlords in until they negotiated peace. Their act of civil disobedience showed the world that the demands of agents of war are prioritized above the people’s voice for peace.

Gbowee’s story has been documented on film, propelled her to the stage of global policy discussions, and now been elevated to the elite cadre of Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Her activism laid the groundwork for the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, another of today’s winners, as President of Liberia, ushering in a new phase of desperately-needed stability and development for the country.

Take Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, who leveraged the power of technology and social media to start a revolution, taking center stage in a country and—and a region—that often excludes women. Man and woman alike pay homage to her as the “mother” of Yemen’s peaceful protests for revolution. When the young mother of three was targeted for attack, imprisoned by the ruling regime, and threatened for her life, thousands of supporters rallied around her, demanding her liberty and her protection.

Like all three figures honored by the Nobel Committee today, untold scores of women around the world are organizing for peace and justice. Women have organized in the streets of Havana to demand accountability for political prisoners, and they were on the frontlines of Tahrir Square. They have brought warlords to the peace table in Ireland and Nepal, and they have been targeted for activism and political leadership in Afghanistan and Bahrain.

Like Karman, they face unique risks as women waging peace. In Russia, human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was abducted by armed men in response to her work; she was not as lucky as Karman—the men who threatened her life ended it. Our recently released report on sexual violence in Colombia details the gross human rights violations targeted at women over the course of Colombia’s conflict—unanswered to this day. The mass rapes of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo continue today. A group of 38 women and girl protesters were arrested in Bahrain just over a week ago.

For too long, women have been an overlooked as a primary asset in global efforts to achieve peace. To this day, women have served as only 6% of negotiators to formalized peace talks, despite their undisputed value to peace across the community, national and international levels. They account for only 1 in 13 participants in peace negotiations since 1992, and have never been appointed the chief mediator of a UN-sponsored peace talk. Women’s absence at the peace table leads to impunity for crimes committed against them as a price of negotiated peace, stifling their cries for justice.

So today’s announcement by the Nobel Committee is not only justified, it is also right on time.

Later this month we will celebrate the anniversary of a groundbreaking piece of international law that first linked women with global security concerns: UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325). 1325 recognizes women’s unique vulnerabilities in war, but equally calls for their full participation in the structuring of peace and in the prevention of conflict. This time last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood before the United Nations Security Council—the highest security body in the world—and announced that the United States would be drafting a National Action Plan to incorporate the elements of UNSCR 1325 into its national policies and programs.

Be it today’s announcement of the three Peace Prize winners honored on the global stage, or the promise of a National Action Plan on women, peace and security from the world’s largest military power, we find ourselves at a turning point in how we think about women, how we define peace, and who we empower to be the stewards of our security and prosperity.  This is a milestone, not just for women, but for the world.