International: 50/50 campaign needs to extend to Nobel Prizes!

Date: October 18, 2011
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The recognition of three women in the Nobel Peace Prizes announced earlier this month came as a welcome variation to the long list of male names, but it also begged the question why women so rarely get the prize, and why when they do, they have to share it.

The awarding of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize on October 7 to three women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (President of Liberia), Leymah Gbowee (founder of Women in Peacebuilding Programme, Liberia) and Tawakkul Karman (journalist and peace activist, Yemen) exemplifies the role that women play in peace processes. But they are a rare exception.

Nobel Prizes have been in existence since 1901. They are awarded in the following categories: physics; chemistry; medicine; peace, literature and economic sciences. In total, the prizes have been awarded 549 times to 853 people and organisations. Some have received the prize more than once. Thus a total of 826 individuals and 20 organisations have received the prize.

Between 1901 and 2011, only 43 women (5%) have been awarded prizes with Marie Curie having been honoured twice in 1903 in Physics and 1911 in Chemistry. Men have received 783 prizes.

Of the 101 individuals awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, 15 (1.5%) are women. Of these, 62 have been given to one Laureate and 28 have been shared by two Laureates. Only two Peace Prizes have been shared among three Laureates. In 1994, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin shared the prize. Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman constitute the only other instance in which three individuals have shared the prize.

While it always takes more than one person to bring about peace, it is noticeable that on one of the rare occasions that women won the prize, three shared it. Two came from the same country – Liberia. The third came from a completely different country – Yemen.

The Nobel Peace Prize is dedicated to “the person who 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 congresses”. The two Liberian women who were presented the Nobel Peace Prize have been awarded for the practical ways in which they have brought peace to their country.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave the award to the three activists “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. The Committee further noted that, “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.”

Women, peace and security issues have taken centre stage in recent times so much that the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000. This resolution reaffirms the important role that women can play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction. Further, it stresses the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Thus the honouring of Sirleaf and Gbowee from Liberia can be viewed as one way in which women are making Resolution 1325 a reality in Africa.

Under the leadership of Sirleaf, the Liberian government became the first post- conflict country to develop a National Action Plan to implement Resolution 1325. The country’s legislature has passed laws that increase rape sentence, guarantee women’s right to property under both state and customary laws, and addresses the customary practice of “widow inheritance”. In addition, it has also instituted a special fast-track court to try cases of sexual and gender-based violence. In 2005, police officers were trained in the management of cases of sexual violence. The Ministry of Gender and Development in Liberia has a specific mandate to mainstream gender in policies, plans and programmes across the government, which has resulted in the establishment of the 1325 Secretariat within the Ministry.

In 2002, Gbowee led a campaign that is believed to have assisted in ending the 13 year conflict in Liberia by organising more than 3000 Christian and Muslim women to peacefully protest the conflict. Among other things, the women vowed to stop having sex with their husbands until the conflict stopped. This women’s peace movement that she led is depicted in the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The documentary tells the story of how grassroots Liberian women united to end a civil war and bring peace to a hopeless country. Gbowee has since established the Ghana based organisation, Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-A). Its mandate is to promote women’s strategic participation and leadership in peace and security governance in Africa.

Karman, on the other hand is the chairperson of Women Journalists Without Chains. It is an organisation that seeks to defend human rights and freedom of expression in Yemen. In particular, her work has involved defending the freedom to protest and working to get protesters out of jail.

All three of these are undoubtedly fighters for peace who deserve the prize. But in a world in which men cause and fight most of the wars while women suffer the consequences, there are surely many more examples of women peace makers.

It is also time for the Oslo committee to start looking more imaginatively for women in other fields. For example very few women have won the science prizes.

Perhaps the argument is that there are few women who have excelled in this field. But, as demonstrated by Barack Obama winning a Nobel Prize well before he had ended any wars, the prize is also used to goad leaders along certain paths. By finding and affirming promising women talent in areas where they are glaringly absent, the prize could help to encourage more women in non-traditional roles.

The 2011 prize broke new ground in putting women under the spotlight and into the headlines. Now the prize should become more daring; finding women who are defying the rules of patriarchy by claiming new spaces. How about a 50/50 campaign for the Nobel Peace Prize!

Saeanna Chingamuka is the Gender and Media Diversity Centre Manager at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.


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