On Monday December 12, I was delighted to attend with my wife a terrific panel discussion with the three powerful women who were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, Peace Activist from Liberia; Tawakkol Karmen of Yemen, a Journalist and Human Rights Activist. The event was hosted by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and the discussion focused on peace, security and democratization. These remarkable women have become Nobel Peace Prize Laureates “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” In front of a packed room, these three champions of human dignity shared their stories of speaking truth to power and improvising to compel change. Their strength and sheer will could be felt by everyone in the room. Their determination to be included, and to be inclusive, has had an enormous impact on the future of their nations and of women’s rights.
The panel was both inspirational, and practical. The inspirational was present before the Laureates even began to speak. President Sirleaf was first, but before she uttered a word a photo of personal triumph appeared on the large video screen above her. It was a photo of President Sirleaf soon after she had been released from jail, incarcerated for speaking out against oppression. It was a picture of personal triumph, fist in the air waved in solidarity with her supporters filling the streets and celebrating her freedom, and theirs. Without any words, we could all feel intangibly the strength of this woman. The image captures everything about personal sacrifice and leadership credibility – she had suffered and sacrificed for her cause.
Laureate Gbowee’s description of how a “sex boycott” was a catalyst for getting men to join the cause is an example of thinking creatively to expand a constituency for change. While she joked a bit about this tactic, it underscores how grass roots and authentic her campaign and struggle was. It was not a campaign organized using modern technology, but by forcing men and society to listen in any way she could be heard. This Nobel Laureate’s gut instincts about people and the power of her voice compelled change. Her advice to foreign donors was instructive, to come and listen and learn about local conditions, before deploying well-intentioned foreign development programs. How she organized is also revealing in this age of the benefits of internet connectivity. Gbowee went from church to church, house to house to organize, her powerful voice and personality a catalyst for popular mobilization. Change is about the people leading it, and shoe leather had been a catalyst her highly effective grass roots campaign.
Tawakkol Karmen of Yemen said “women’s issues have no boundaries.” Her point was that women’s rights as human rights is a global challenge – not unique to any region but a universal challenge – with a global opportunity associated with positive change. The peace processes that each of these women is associated with were advanced by their participation and leadership. The involvement of women had made an enormous difference. By extension, how many other challenges do we face today that could radically benefit from greater inclusion of women in leadership. With more women in business and economic leadership, might we be able to be in a better place at this time of global economic interdependence? With more women in political leadership, might we have a more inclusive dialogue regarding the direction of our humanity?
Laureate Karmen made another point: “the young are going to own their countries from now on.” An important point from a woman from the Middle East, where much of the population is under age of thirty.
Important questions were asked at this symposium, and it was an honor to be in the presence of courageous leadership. It is a mission of US Embassy Stockholm to make gender equality and women’s empowerment a part of our efforts pertaining to democracy, opportunity, internet freedom, and other challenges. As Secretary Clinton has stated: “If you’re trying to solve a problem, whether it is fighting corruption or strengthening the rule of law or sparking economic growth, you are more likely to succeed if you widen the circle to include a broader range of expertise, experience, and ideas. So as we work to solve our problems, we need more women at the table and in the halls of parliament and government ministries where these debates are occurring.”