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A “Nobel” achievement for women

Can women turn the world around?

Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee answered that question in her speech during Saturday’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.

“The world used to remember Liberia for child soldiers,” she said. “But they now remember our country for the white T-shirt women.”

In 2003, Gbowee organized a network of women determined to end Liberia’s long-running civil war. Dressed in white, thousands of women came to Monrovia’s fish market every day to make that determination known to Charles Taylor, then the country’s president and dictator.

“It was the first time in our history in Liberia where Muslim women and Christian women were coming together,” Gbowee observed in the excellent documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, shown recently on PBS. “We had a big banner that said ‘the women of Liberia want peace now.’”

In less than six months, the women accomplished their goal. That August, Taylor resigned from office and a peace agreement was reached. Three years later, the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s president and the first female African head of state “was the icing on the cake” for the women’s peace campaign, Gbowee said.

Can women turn the world around?

During the Dec. 10 ceremony, Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said Gbowee, Johnson Sirleaf and Yemeni peace advocate Tawakkol Karman, were chosen to receive the 2011 prize because "we cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women acquire the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."

It is fitting that Johnson Sirleaf, a United Methodist; Gbowee, a Lutheran; and Karman, a Muslim, were honored together because they clearly understand that interfaith solidarity is a crucial component of peace-making.

Karman – at 32 the youngest-ever peace prize recipient – keeps pictures of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Hillary Clinton in her home. A journalist and activist, she was one of the leaders of the democracy demonstrations this year on Change Square in Sana, Yemen.

The walls between human societies have collapsed, said Karman in her Nobel speech, and the world has entered “…a phase where peoples and nations of the world are not only residents of a small village, as they say, but members of one family, despite differences in nationality and race or in culture and language.”

As the peoples of the world draw closer, she noted, “…understanding will gradually replace dispute, cooperation will replace conflict, peace will replace war and integration will replace division.”

In her speech, Gbowee, who now heads the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Ghana, reminded her West African sisters and “women in Asia, the Middle East and the world” that such a victory has yet to be achieved.

“We must continue to unite in sisterhood to turn our tears into triumph, our despair into determination and our fear into fortitude,” she said. “There is no time to rest until our world achieves wholeness and balance, where all men and women are considered equal and free.

Can women turn the world around?

Yes, declared Johnson Sirleaf, who was re-elected this fall to a second six-year term as Liberia’s president. She stressed that women and men alike must not be afraid to denounce injustice and demand peace.

“If I might thus speak to girls and women everywhere, I would issue them this simple invitation: My sisters, my daughters, my friends, find your voices!”