DAKAR (TrustLaw)--Two Liberian women being among the three joint winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize is recognition of the vital contribution women play in conflict resolution and an inspiration to other women in Africa, women’s groups said on Friday.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Africa's first freely elected female head of state, shared the $1.5 million prize with compatriot Leymah Gbowee, who campaigned against Liberia's civil war, and Arab activist Tawakul Karman of Yemen.
“This award speaks volumes about the role of the women of Liberia in the peace process that ended the war,” said Blanthe Felmah, national project officer of the Women, Peace and Security Network-Africa (WIPSEN) whose executive director, Gbowee, is one of the winners.
“The phone has not stopped ringing at our office and there is jubilation and excitement everywhere because it is an award for all the women of Liberia and not only Leymah Gbowee or the President (Sirleaf),” she added on the phone from Monrovia.
Gbowee's initiative is credited by some for bringing an end to the country’s civil war in 2003. The movement started humbly in 2002 when Gbowee organised a group of women to sing and pray for an end to fighting in a fish market.
Liberia’s 14-year-long civil war led to the deaths of more than 300,000 people and drove hundreds of thousands to flee to other countries as refugees or stay in camps in the country.
However, activists in the country see Sirleaf’s and Gbowee’s achievement as going beyond the borders of Liberia.
“This (Nobel Prize) would encourage other women in Africa to forge for peace in their countries and it would boost women’s empowerment initiatives across the region,” said Lena Cummings, the coordinator of Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) that works on peace and conflict resolution issues in Liberia.
The announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize came while more than 30 West African women were being given training in mediation skills at a workshop run by the U.N. entity for women’s empowerment (UN Women) in Senegal.
“We find that it is very inspiring to other women engaged in peace work,” said Josephine Odera, the regional head of UN Women in West Africa.
She said the participants celebrated the award and honoured Sirleaf and Gbowee in song and dance at the workshop being held in the coastal resort of Saly, near Dakar.
“They (participants) are so inspired and they look forward to being recipients (of the Nobel Peace Prize) in future,” she told TrustLaw by phone.
Rights groups say women are often sidelined from peace negotiations in the various conflicts that have rocked the West African region and hope that the Nobel Peace Prize would highlight the necessity to integrate them in these processes.
“This award is just extraordinary,” said Salimata Porquet the head of the regional women’s peace and security network that co-organised the workshop with UN Women.
“Whenever we say that women should be included in peace, mediation and reconciliation processes people claim that there aren’t qualified women. This award is proof that there are qualified women and there are many more that we’ve just trained from which the A.U. (African Union) and regional bodies could draw from,” Porquet added.
Participants at the mediation training said the grassroots background of Gbowee, who is not a politician or political leader shows that women at all levels could contribute to peace and stability if they are determined to do so.
“We want to tell women that conflict resolution is part of our responsibility even in our homes and we have to ensure that we live in peace and promote peaceful coexistence in our homes, in our communities (and) in our various countries and regions (of Africa),” said Ruth Caesar, the Liberian focal point and founding member of the Mano River Women Peace Network (MARWOPNET).
Several Liberian women’s groups that have been running programmes on peace and dialogue ahead of presidential and general elections slated for next week said this award will highlight the importance of their activities to sceptics in the West African nation.
“I have just explained the importance of this prize to women attending a peace and dialogue training and they are dancing and singing about this achievement,” Cummings said on the phone from Kakata, a city northeast of Monrovia, where she was holding a workshop on non-violent elections for women and youths.
The rights group Amnesty International also commended the decision by the Nobel Peace Prize committee to recognise the work of people who have been defending women’s rights and the inclusion of women in leadership positions.
“It’s tremendously important symbolically for girls and women everywhere to see that women can reach leadership positions and can be celebrated for something so incredibly important as generating peace,” said Marianne Møllmann, Senior Policy Adviser at Amnesty International and gender expert.
“Many girls and women in the world [who] are told that they should not be educated, they should not aspire to anything other than having children, which in of itself is not bad, but women have ambitions and want to work for their country,” she told TrustLaw in London.
(Additional reporting by Natasha Elkington in London. Editing by Lisa Anderson in New York.)