Three women who have campaigned for rights and an end to violence in Liberia and Yemen, including Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.
Another Liberian, Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized fellow women against the country's civil war including by organizing a "sex strike", and Tawakkul Karman, who has worked in Yemen, will share the prize worth $1.5 million with Johnson-Sirleaf, who faces re-election for a second term as president on Tuesday.
"We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society," Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland told reporters.
"The Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 is to be divided in three equal parts between Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."
Johnson-Sirleaf, 72, is Africa's first freely elected female president. Gbowee mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the war in Liberia, and to ensure women's participation in elections.
The Committee added: "In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab Spring, Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women's rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen."
"It is the Norwegian Nobel Committee's hope that the prize to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman will help to bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and to realize the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent."
Speaking by telephone from Monrovia, Johnson-Sirleaf's son James told Reuters: "I am over-excited. This is very big news and we have to celebrate."
The chairman of the Nobel Prize committee also told reporters in Oslo Friday that the choices to receive this year’s peace award symbolized the important role that Muslims had played in achieving global peace.
Some observers admitted they were surprised by the choice of recipients this year and had expected the committee to award the prize to someone more directly involved in the Arab Spring, perhaps a cyber activist in one of the Arab countries to have had an uprising.
But Jagland explained why the committee made it choice as it did: "It was not easy for us to say to pick one from Egypt or pick one from Tunisia, because there were so many," he told the AP. "And we did not want to say that one was more important than the others."
"We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context," Jagland continues. "Namely if one fails to include the women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy."
The chairman noted in particular that the award to Karman-- who has been dubbed "Iron Woman, "The Mother of Revolution" and "The Spirit of the Yemeni Revolution" by fellow Yemeni protesters-- should be seen as a nod to the role of women in the wave of anti-authoritarian revolts that challenged rulers across the Arab world this past year.
"The Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it," Jagland noted.
He added that Karman, a 32 year old mother of three who heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains, also belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group "which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy." He added that "I don't believe that. There are many signals that that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution."
Karman "started her activism long before the revolution took place in Tunisia and Egypt. She has been a very courageous woman in Yemen for quite along time," Jagland said.
Karman, speaking from Sanaa to the BBC Arabic said she was dedicating her award to "all the martyrs and wounded of the Arab Spring…and to all the free people who are fighting for their rights".
The peace prize is the only Nobel handed out in Oslo, Norway. The other five awards — in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics — are presented in Stockholm. The Nobel committee received a record 241 nominations for this year's prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (£1m) and enormous honor, among the individuals and groups believed to have been put forward were the European Union, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and of course various key cyber dissidents in the Arab Spring movement.
Last year's peace prize went to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
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