Women's empowerment centre stage as three share Nobel

by Pierre-Henry Deshayes

OSLO, December 8, 2011 (AFP) - What do Liberia's president, a "peace warrior" toiling for national conciliation in the same country, and an "Arab Spring" activist fighting Yemen's regime have in common? All three will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Saturday.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman will share the 2011 award "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work," Norwegian Nobel Committee president Thorbjoern Jagland said when announcing the prize on October 7.

On Saturday, he will hand the trio their prestigious award at a ceremony in Oslo's city hall, held each year on the anniversary of prize creator Alfred Nobel's death on December 10.

Sirleaf will be arriving in the Norwegian capital just a month after winning a rocky re-election to the Liberian presidency.

The 73-year-old grandmother, who made history in 2005 when she became Africa's first elected woman president, won the November 8 vote with a whopping 90 percent.

However, the win was marred by pre-election violence, her main opponent Winston Tubman's decision to boycott the polls over claims of fraud and devastatingly low voter participation of just 38.6 percent.

Her Nobel prize, announced just days before the first round of voting began, was also criticised, with Tubman ranting against the "unacceptable," "undeserved," and "provocative" award.

The re-elected president enjoys virtual rock star status abroad as a symbol of Liberia's successful post-war reconstruction.

But she is far more controversial in her own country, which is still feeling the effects of a 14-year civil war ending in 2003 that cost some 250,000 lives and was tainted by systematic use of child soldiers, rape and mutilations of civilians.

In a bid to mend Liberia's wounds, the "Iron Lady" recently appointed her compatriot and fellow Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee to head up a peace and reconciliation initiative.

The 39-year-old social worker and "peace warrior" led Liberia's women to defy feared warlords, inspiring a large group of Christian and Muslim women to wage a sex strike in 2002, refusing to sleep with their husbands until the violence ended.

"I know it is a daunting task... Liberia is still deeply divided along political lines, along ethnic lines, and along social lines," Gbowee told AFP and radio station RFI last month, speaking of her appointment.

"I am going to be using my jeans and sneakers and going from community to community... This reconciliation has to be hands on," she said, adding: "We have to take it to the people."

The third Nobel laureate, 32-year-old Yemeni journalist and activist Karman, is one of the leading representatives of the "Arab Spring" uprisings that have swept through the Middle East with demands of democracy, uprooting autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and rattling those in Yemen and Syria.

Karman, a mother of three and the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, spent months camped out at Yemen's Change Square, and became a leading figure in the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for the past 33 years.

Under mounting pressure from the streets, the veteran leader signed a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal last month, agreeing in principle to step down next February in return for immunity from prosecution.

That is not enough for Karman: she has not only demanded that he step down immediately, but she has also traveled to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to insist Saleh be tried for crimes against humanity.

Each of the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates will receive a gold medal, a diploma and a third of the 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.48 million, 1.08 million euros) prize money at the Oslo ceremony.

The winners of the other Nobel prizes, for literature, medicine, physics, chemistry and economics, will receive their awards at a separate ceremony in Stockholm on Saturday.