When the Nobel committee announced in October 2011 that year’s recipients of its Peace Prize, it raised to three the number of African women to receive the internationally distinguished award. Two of the three new recipients were from Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee. They thereby joined Wangari Maathai of Kenya, the first African woman to receive the prize in 2004. While Ms. Maathai had been honoured for her work in defence of the environment and human rights, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf and Ms. Gbowee — together with Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — were cited “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Wangari Muta Maathai
Wangari Muta Maathai, who died of cancer less than two weeks before her Liberian sisters were similarly honoured, launched the non-governmental Green Belt Movement in 1977 to plant trees, alleviate poverty and end conflict. She mobilized Kenyans, particularly women, to plant more than 30 million trees, and inspired the UN to launch a campaign that has led to the planting of 11 billion trees worldwide.
Ms. Maathai linked social change with political action. In 1992, while protesting corrupt land allocations, she was beaten by thugs and state police. Later, after a change in regime, she won a parliamentary election and became assistant minister of the environment. Following her death, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Ms. Maathai “a pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security.”
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize six years after she became Africa's first elected female head of state. With a background as a development economist, she had previously served as a finance minister in Liberia and as the Africa director of the UN Development Programme. In the 1980s she was prominent in opposing the repressive military regime, which forced her into exile. She later returned during a pause in the civil war that began in 1989, ran against Charles Taylor in the 1997 presidential election, and was briefly forced abroad again when Taylor won.
After a peace agreement installed an interim government in 2003, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf headed the Governance Reform Commission. She then ran for president in 2005, in the first election after 14 years of war, and won. Her tenure focused on overcoming the economic devastation and social tensions left by the war. In November 2011 she was re-elected to a second term.
Leymah Gbowee, born in a central Liberian village in 1972, played a central role in mobilizing Liberian women to oppose the civil war and work for reconciliation. At the height of the fighting in early 2003, she led women in picketing, fasting and praying. Excluded from internationally-sponsored peace negotiations, the women nevertheless pressured the leaders of the warring factions and helped keep the talks going until an agreement was signed.
Trained as a trauma counsellor, Ms. Gbowee has worked with girls and women who were raped during war, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She heads the Ghana-based Women Peace and Security Network. The reception of the Peace Prize by three women in 2011, Ms. Gbowee said, was “a victory for women’s rights everywhere in the world,” as well as “a great tribute” to the pioneering work of Wangari Maathai.