Girls Just Want to Have Peace

ellen johnson sirleaf
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Last week it was announced that his year's Nobel Prize for Peace was going to three women "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work." Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, shared the prize with her sister in disarmament, Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni journalist Tawakel Karman.

Shall we talk about why this is awesome?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 72, has transformed Liberia from a country run by warlords and drug-addled child soldiers to a nation invested in literacy, markets, and the serious prosecution of rape.

Sirleaf's particular brand of awesomeness lies in her disinclination to give up in the face of brutality, even after being arrested, jailed, threatened, and exiled multiple times.

Mrs. Sirleaf, who has four sons, is also quite the smartypants.


She married at 17 and moved to the U.S. with her husband, ending up in Madison, Wisconsin. What's there to do in Madison? I suppose she could have started The Onion, but instead she got a degree in accounting from Madison Business College, and then went on to earn a degree in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a master's in public administration from Harvard. So by the time the whole president-of-a-developing-country gig came along, she knew what she had to do to get her country out of $4.9 billion in debt, and so far (fingers crossed!) she's kept it that way.

Some say it's a political move on the part of the Nobel committee to award Sirleaf on the eve of her re-election, and as of this writing she's well ahead in the polls. 

leymah gbowee
Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee, 39, was a counsellor and social worker before becoming a peace activist. The mother of six children and president of her Lutheran church, she had an important early realization of her own power. Deep in the trenches of Liberia's first civil war, working as a trauma counsellor for former child soldiers, she realized that  "if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers."

Gbowee's interfaith women's peace movement was so successful that their unrelenting and creative protests are credited with bringing about the end of the second Liberian civil war in 2004. That's right, a bunch of Christian and Muslim women got together and asked themselves, "what kind of pressure can we put on the government that they'll actually notice?" They staged silent protests; they prayed and they sang; they marched wearing white t-shirts; and, most famously, they had a sex strike and threatened to curse any man who came near.

The curse Gbowee invoked came from an old African belief that

women give life and they can take it away. The curse is invoked only under the most extreme circumstances and men who are exposed are considered dead. No one will cook for them, marry them, enter into any kind of contract with them or buy anything from them. The curse extends to foreign men as well, who will go impotent or suffer some great harm.

Part of winning the battle is knowing your enemy's weaknesses, and in this case the mere threat of exposing themselves was enough to bring an end to war. Damn, ladies! Nice work.

YemenOur third Nobel Peace laureate comes from Yemen. Tawakel Karman, 32, is a journalist and human rights advocate who helped found the group Woman Journalists Without Chains to protest censorship, and was an inspirational player in the mostly male-led Arab Spring protests.

The first Yemeni woman and the youngest person ever to win a Nobel, she's done a lot to deserve the nickname "Iron Woman." Her work in peacefully organizing young people against the dictatorship of President Saleh impressed those in and outside of Yemen, but they still have a ways to go. Saleh is back and his troops are firing at unarmed protesters this week.

Though Karman, the mother of three, once fully veiled herself in the traditional manner, she switched to a head scarf when she realized that eye contact was an important tool in organizing and getting her message across, pointing out that the veil is a cultural symbol, but is not required by Islam.

The Nobel committee had a very clear point to make in awarding this year's prize to three women: "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."

Or as Gbowee says,

In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails.


Photos top to bottom: DFID/Flickr ;Gary Gershoff/Getty;Island Spice/Flickr

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