It’s been a big month for women, especially African and Middle Eastern women. The first African female Nobel Peace laureate, Wangari Maathai, died in her native Kenya. Her death a sad blow for those whose lives she transformed by advocating better environmental management as a way to increase the resources necessary for the fundamentals of life – firewood and clean water. Challenging the patriarchal society of Kenya brought her to the realisation that without a working democracy environmental governance was impossible. Her fervent activism in turn brought her the unwanted attentions of the law enforcement agencies and various stints in jail.
Then the announcement last week that the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace has been awarded to three women, two from Africa and one from the Middle East. All are ardent protagonists of educating women in order to propel their countries out of the dark ages with regard the emancipation of women. Whilst Kenya, Yemen and Liberia, the countries these four women come from, all have universal suffrage, women’s roles are still largely shackled.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a woman approaching old age at 72, certainly in African terms, is facing an election to allow her to retain her role as leader of the Republic of Liberia – a country on the edge of West Africa colonised by freed slaves. Charges of corruption encouraged her to clean house and helped pave the way for a truth and recognition commission into the crimes of the fourteen-year civil war. Perhaps that will be enough to gain her victory, perhaps not, but her tenure remains a remarkable feat considering the years spent in exile after challenging both former leaders, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor. As well as quadrupling the national budget Johnson-Sirleaf also negotiated significant debt relief, but perhaps the success for which she will be remembered is the increased school enrolment for girls.
The other two women are young in comparison, 39 and 32. Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, started her activism across from the Monrovian fish market. Wearing white, she sat with thousands of women in the football stadium fasting and praying for peace and the end of the relentless fear of rape, the death of their husbands and the kidnapping of their children to become child soldiers. Her work as a trauma counsellor for those children lead her to become a leader in the women’s peace movement, which in 2003 finally persuaded the rebels and the government to negotiate the Accra Peace Accord.
The third recipient, Tawakul Karman, is a young Yemeni mother and journalist whose activism has focused on freedom of press and the release of political prisoners in a country riven by oppression, poverty and unemployment for many years. Not only has she had to face a corrupt government but also the condemnation of the mullahs who accuse her of un-Islamic sentiments. Removing her veil a number of years ago she said, “It is not stated in my religion to wear the veil: it is a traditional practice, so I took it off.” Her voice has empowered women of Yemen to join the protests on the streets demanding change. “This is not just a political revolution,” she says, “it’s a social revolution.”
But what really thrills me about the well-deserved award and the accolades sure to follow is the acknowledgement that women can indeed make a difference, even in the arbitrary male domains they have been brought up in.
Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and a man with vision and an understanding of the unifying power of women, has through his Grameen Bank given over 8 million women from 90 countries micro-loans to get them started in small businesses, which in turn help support their families.
His enterprise, along with the efforts of women such as Maathai, Johnson-Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman, underpin the notion that to educate girls is a crucial step in promoting a fairer and less chauvinistic approach to changing the role of not just of women but also of governments. It is after all the women and families who lay the foundations of society.
In his will Alfred Nobel said the winner of the peace prize presented in his name “….shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congress.”
He would surely approve this year’s recipients.