Speaking in Oslo a day before the prize ceremony, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen told reporters they felt the award had empowered their struggle for women’s rights, democracy and peace in their home countries and beyond.
“No longer will the world exclude us,” said Gbowee, 39, who long campaigned for the rights of women, against rape and challenging Liberia’s war lords. “Because the world is finally saying to us: your skills abilities have been recognized and we are prepared to work with you.”
The peace prize committee recognized the three women for championing women’s rights in regions where oppression is common and helping women participate in peace-building.
Karman, a female icon of the protest movement in Yemen, drew applause when she proclaimed that “the period that women appears as victims” has ended.
“They are leaders,” she said. “Not just leaders in their countries, or leaders in their struggles. They are leaders in the world.”
A journalist and member of the Islamic party Islah, Karman is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The 32-year-old Yemeni also heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains.
She said she hoped the uprising against outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh had changed Yemen’s reputation as hotbed of terrorists.
“Inside this revolution the voice of al-Qaida and terrorists shut down,” she said. “Inside this peaceful revolution, the voice of revenge stopped, the voice of hate stopped.”
Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president, said the Nobel had strengthened her commitment to “to work for women’s empowerment.”
She is widely credited with helping Liberia emerge from an especially brutal civil war, and dedicated the award to the women of Africa, and in particular Liberia, who have suffered in conflicts.
“They have carried the burden of those conflicts, subjected to rape, to sex slavery, being the ones who have to continue to have to provide for their children even as their men are out in war,” she said.
Sirleaf was elected president in 2005 and won re-election in October.
No woman or sub-Saharan African had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor women to fight deforestation by planting trees.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored women with the peace prize for the first time in seven years, and in selecting Karman it also recognized the Arab Spring movement championed by millions of often anonymous activists from Tunisia to Syria.
Last year’s peace prize went to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was represented by an empty chair at the awards ceremony as an infuriated China would not allow him to travel to Norway.
The three women will share the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award, to be presented Saturday at Oslo’s City Hall.