Late last year, a group of Italian civil society organizations promoted an international campaign to present the candidacy of African women for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Peace Prize for African Women (NOPPAW) campaign organized dozens of events around Italy to spotlight African women’s growing role in the continent’s daily life. The campaign soon found supporters around Europe and in Africa. “African women are the continent’s compelling leaders, both in daily life and in social and political activities – said Guido Barber, one of the promoters – Africa stands on their feet. Female entrepreneurs, politicians, promoters of rights, health, peace and co-existence; it is impossible to imagine the future of Africa without picturing the many ordinary women who carry the weight of this land every day, taking on its tragedies and bearing its hopes”.
The campaign did not succeed in its intention, but certainly weighed on the decision of the Nobel Prize committee that awarded this year honour to three women: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, activist Leymah Gbowee – also from Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman, a leading figure in Yemen’s populist revolt this year who inspired thousands of women to rise up in a region where they are considered second-class citizens. The prize recognizes the increasing role of women in Africa and the Middle East in the struggle to break away from a culture and tradition of restrictions. Women have become more visible in government and social, yet they still face deep challenges in education, employment and access to health care.
Speaking on the phone from her tent pitched in Change Square, the focal point of the uprising in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, Karman said “this is a victory for our revolution, for our methods, for our struggle, for all Yemeni youth, and all the youth in the Arab world. Islam has always been associated with radical terrorism, intolerance and more. Giving the Peace Prize to a woman and an Islamist? That means a sort of re-evaluation. It means Islam is not against peace, it’s not against women, and Islamists can be women activists, and they can fight for human rights, freedom and democracy”. Karman has been a vocal critic of Saleh’s government since 2007, when she headed a human rights group called Women Journalists Without Chains. Yemen society is a patriarchal and deeply conservative. There women face restrictions and are often treated violently. This is why Karman’s activism is all the more unusual. Today, many young women say Karman motivated them to take to the streets.
Johnson Sirleaf has been involved in politics for more than 30 years. A Harvard-trained economist, she is the first elected woman President in Africa. Taking up the job, she vowed to work for peace, development and the rights of women. “We are now going into our ninth year of peace, and every Liberian has contributed to it. We particularly give this credit to Liberian women, who have consistently led the struggle for peace, even under conditions of neglect. Many do not see it, but people have lived for six years and have not heard a gunshot”.
Gbowee, the other Liberian laureate, organized Muslim and Christian women who demonstrated together in large numbers. They were instrumental in bringing an end to Liberia’s civil war in 2003. Now living in Ghana, Gbowee heads the Women Peace and Security Network Africa. “This whole process of three women receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is really overwhelming – she said – it is recognition that we cannot ignore the other half of the world’s population. We cannot ignore women’s unique skills”.