Liberia President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf, activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in promoting women’s rights and peace.

By Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

Johnson-Sirleaf, who was elected Africa’s first female president in 2005, has been rebuilding a country devastated by civil wars from 1989 to 2003 that killed an estimated 250,000 people. Liberia’s Gbowee, a social worker and mother of five, is head of the Accra-based Women Peace and Security Network Africa.

She’s featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about how Liberian women took on warlords and the regime of Charles Taylor during the civil war.

Karman is a human rights activist and journalist. She has helped organize protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring that swept across North Africa to challenge the rule of President Ali Abdulla Saleh.

“I dedicate this to all the people who have sacrificed their lives to the freedom of the country," Karman said by phone from Sanaa. “This will help push young people to continue working for peace, democracy and freedom. This recognizes the role of youth in these countries."

Also See | Women’s rights get a Nobel boost (PDF)

Twelve women have won the peace prize out of a total 97 individuals, according to the Nobel website. Bertha von Suttner was the first woman to win in 1905. The last woman and African to win was Wangari Maathai in 2004, who died last month.

“Women today are the ones who suffer the most during conflicts and wars, notably due to rape and other violence and this has become a security concern of first order," said Thorbjoern Jagland, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. “It’s the same theme that became important during the Arab Spring—if women aren’t part of the democratization process, one can’t obtain full democracy."

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who died in 1896, and the first prizes were handed out in 1901.

A combination of three recent photos shows (from L) Yemen’s Arab Spring activist, Tawakkul Karman, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian “peace warrior , Leymah Gbowee, who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: AFP

The peace prize is the only award to be given in Oslo. The other prizes are announced in Stockholm, including one for economics that was set up by Sweden’s central bank.

Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard University-trained economist, said in a speech to the US Congress in 2006 that Liberia, partly populated by repatriated US slaves, would be America’s success story in Africa. In August 2003, President George W. Bush sent Marines to Liberia as peacekeepers after Taylor agreed to demands to step down.

The turnaround has since helped attract more than $16 billion in investments in mining, farming, oil exploration and forestry industries and driven annual economic growth of 5% to 9.5%, according to the President’s website.

“She deserves credit," said Nana Ampofo, a London-based Liberia analyst with Songhai Advisory, by phone. Much of this has depended on her ability to maintain and protect relationships with the donor community.

Johnson-Sirleaf first held positions at the nation’s Treasury in 1965 before earning a Master’s Degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1971. She later became finance minister in 1979 and left the country after a military coup the following year. She has worked for Citibank in Kenya and for the World Bank in Washington. In 1992, she joined as director in Africa of the United Nations Development Program.

She briefly returned to contest elections in 1997, losing to warlord Taylor and returning to exile. She came back again in 2003, when Taylor left the country, to head the Government Reform Commission and resigned from that job in 2005 for her successful presidential campaign. She’s running for re-election this month and in an 2 October speech posted on her website said that no one else could have done a better job than we have, urging continued development and peace.

She was born in Monrovia, the capital, and is according to her website the granddaughter of a traditional chief of renown in western Liberia. She is divorced and has four sons and 11 grandchildren.

Fellow Liberian, Gbowee, arrived in Monrovia as a 17-year old and trained as a trauma counsellor, working with former child soldiers from Taylor’s army. A founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding, she formed a coalition of Christian and Muslim women who sought to end the civil war in part through a sex strike, according to the Oslo Freedom Forum.

As a result of the strike, Taylor agreed to meet Gbowee, and promised to attend peace talks in Ghana.

Karman is chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, and has organized weekly non-violent protests in front of Sanaa University since 2007. She started a text message service that sent news on human rights across Yemen, which was closed by the Telecommunications Ministry, according to her Facebook page.

“Karman is one of the women who represent the Arab Spring —she’s an activist, she’s a journalist and she’s an expression of a new Yemen, where human rights and democracy have a much stronger role than what women have had in many Arab countries up until today," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Oslo on Friday.

Nasreen Seria in Johannesburg, Josiane Kremer and Stephen Treloar in Oslo, Mohammed Hatem in Abu Dhabi Ayesha Daya in Duabai, and Terence Sesay in Monrovia have contributed to the article.