Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman were girls. They were all daughters, sisters, friends…children. Girls. Girls who didn’t feel safe, who were hungry, who were beaten, who were unsure of their future. They grew up in troubled times. They watched as family members died in a war no one could understand. They each knew that there was, in fact, a solution. A girl.
These women became mothers. They tried to protect their families against tyranny and violence. The girl in each of them screamed out to the world to STOP. But because they were female, they were not heard. Their sons, their husbands, their fathers, their male-dominated government didn’t hear their pleas. So they turned to other women. They started meeting and talking, planning and arguing and learning. They discovered that they had a common goal. They wanted peace. They wanted to live without fear and raise a generation who would speak up and be heard. They organized out of need and desperation. Together with other women they have made a difference.
Last week they were each awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Once, they were girls. Today they are women committed to a peaceful world.
“We want peace, no more war,” women chanted throughout Liberia and Yemen after the awards were announced. “We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped.” This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women for their leadership roles in various non-violent struggles for the safety of women and women’s rights to full participation in their governments and communities. They are the hope for and the voice of women and girls in an area of the world which has little hope and where the female voice is far too often unheard. The Nobel Committee said they hoped that by recognizing the efforts of these women, they would “help to bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and realize the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent.”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, of Liberia, is Africa’s first democratically elected female president. Since her inauguration in 2006, she has worked for peace efforts in Liberia based on promoting economic and social development led in part by women. She is facing a complicated election this week in a country in desperate need of rapid change. Girls throughout the country are lining the streets, chanting “Mama Ellen!” and clearly demonstrating that they finally feel they are being valued in their country.
Leymah Gbowee mobilized women across divided ethnic and religious lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure that women were allowed to participate in elections. She believes that “the road to freedom is long, the cost of freedom is high and the fight for freedom is not for the fainthearted and the pessimists.” She is the mother of five and is a trauma counselor who worked with former child soldiers during Liberia’s first civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 1996. She has since worked to enhance the influence of women since the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.
Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights, democracy, and peace in Yemen. With other women she took to the streets this year to demand universal rights for women. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions early this year, says Karman, convinced her to intensify her activism. When she is not in prison for her peaceful protests, she works to free her fellow activists, as head of Yemen’s human-rights organization Women Journalists Without Chains. In this extremely poor country where child brides of age 10 are not uncommon, she ditched her full-face veil as she protested. She is the face of a new generation of women speaking their truths in Yemen.
These leaders are inspiring role models for young women everywhere. President Obama said, “Each of this year’s Nobel recipients have their own story, but their lives reveal a fundamental truth. Nations are ultimately more successful when all of their citizens can reach their full potential, including women. When women and girls have access to proper health care, families are healthier and communities are less subject to the ravages of disease and hunger. When women and girls have the opportunity to pursue their education and careers of their own choosing, economies are more likely to prosper. And when women assume their rightful place as equals– in the halls of government, at the negotiating table and across civil society– governments are more effective, peaceful resolution of disputes are more lasting, and societies are more likely to meet the aspirations of all their citizens.” Young girls in Liberia and Yemen have symbols of hope in these women. They are forming their own groups, in dusty, rural communities throughout Africa, organizing support for all women and girls. They are beginning to dream again.
Despite the successes that each of these women is realizing right now, there are tremendous hurdles for them to still overcome. The real message here to us all is that we CAN do it! We can make a real and lasting difference in this world as women and girls. Each of us matters. Each of us has dreamed about our “perfect” life. What are we willing to sacrifice to get that life…and how will it benefit others? We can work together to make it happen. Some of us will be the leaders. Others will be the willpower. Some will be on the front lines and others will work behind the scenes. As long as we work together, listen to each other and speak to each other, we WILL do it. I want to live in a safer, more accepting and respectful world. I want my son and daughters to grow up equal, having been supported and valued always. I want less weapons and more communication. I want food for all and opportunity for growth. I was a girl. I wanted more. I wanted to change the world. I can.