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3 Women ‘at Forefront of Peace for Years’ Honored With Nobel Prize

October 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to three women who have fought for peace and women's rights. Margret Warner discusses the achievements of the three winners with the Institute for Policy Studies' Emira Woods and Vital Voices' Malini Patel.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on what these three women achieved to win this prize, we are joined by Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank — tank, and Malini Patel of Vital Voices, an international non-governmental organization that works with women around the world.

Welcome to you both on this very big day.

Now, the Nobel Committee was clear they wanted to say how vital women’s involvement is to building any kind of just or democratic society.

But what makes — I mean, there are a lot of women activists around the world. What makes these three women special, Emira Woods?

EMIRA WOODS, Institute For Policy Studies: Well, I think it’s extraordinary that they have held up women who are peace activists, longtime peace activists from the ground up.

You have a woman like Leymah who really started with a very small group of women at one church, their own church.

MARGARET WARNER: This is in Liberia.

EMIRA WOODS: Reached out in Liberia to other women in churches, then to mosques, understanding that you have to build a movement that cuts across religion, that cuts across class, that brings all people together demanding peace.

And it is that movement, women walking in the hot sun and the pouring rain, that actually ushered out Charles Taylor, the former dictator, president of Liberia, and really ushered in this new possibility for Liberia. It’s an extraordinary thing, right?

And, of course, Yemen as well, with all of the vitality that’s going on in the streets, not only in Yemen and Syria, but really throughout the North Africa/Middle East region. It’s been phenomenal to see. And for the Nobel Committee to actually recognize the work of these women is extraordinary.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

MALINI PATEL, Vital Voices: Well-deserved recognition for these women.

They have been at the forefront of peace for years. And they are finally recognized, and inspirations for others who are doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you’re saying it’s not just that they’re women’s rights fighters. It’s a much — they’re aimed at a much bigger issue even.

MALINI PATEL: Political, social, economic, violence against women.

Tawakkul Karman, she has been a leader for years. And she has made a space in Yemen for women to congregate, to get together, to voice their opinions in the tent camps, where they are socially and culturally appropriate, and they can speak to it. And they have learned and connected from the women in Egypt, in Tunisia, in all the other countries in the Middle East.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s take a closer look now at Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has been — we just did a profile of her earlier this week, one of our special correspondents over there.

Bishop Tutu, you were both nodding and smiling when we saw — showed him doing his dance. And he said — let me get this exactly — he said today, “She brought stability to a place that was going to hell.”

Is that a fair assessment? Does she deserve that credit?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, as a Liberian, you recognize that 26 years of war, the society had had enough of war and she came at a pivotal time to be really a beacon. But it wasn’t just her. There was a movement of people who were saying enough is enough and pushing.

And that’s why I think it’s extraordinary that the award goes not only to the head of state, this incredible icon herself, but also to someone representing that very activist spirit, community organizer spirit, pushing for peace from the ground up, because, ultimately, the path to peace is — it’s a difficult one, and it needs both those working at the top and those working at the bottom, in the streets, making sure that that path to peace is firm.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tawakkul Karman, tell a little bit more — the Nobel Committee said, look, there were a lot of activists in the Arab spring, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, where it’s not succeeded yet, Yemen, where it hasn’t succeeded yet.

They picked her because she had been out there on the front lines before the uprising, and they felt they could identify her. What did she do before the uprising?

MALINI PATEL: She was working since 2007. She is a journalist, and she has been working for women’s rights at the local level, at the grassroots level, working to make sure that people have a voice, and not just for women, but for society overall.

It is a pay-it-forward mentality of, this is not for me. This is for my society. And it’s long-running.

MARGARET WARNER: They made a point of noting that she’s of the Muslim faith, that — saying that this demonstrated that Islam and the liberation of women are not incompatible or can be reconciled. How much — she is member of Islah, the Islamic party there. How much of that part of her identity is really central to what she does?

MALINI PATEL: I can’t speak on her behalf for her internal feelings, but what I can say is, she truly believes in the Islamic faith.

And that is not something that is against women’s rights. They are hand in hand. And I believe that she feels that way, and that’s why she works so hard to make sure that all people have a voice.

MARGARET WARNER: One question here, as much as women activists everywhere are celebrating, is, could there be a backlash because of this prize? And I’m thinking, especially, of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, for one, who is facing a very tough re-election.

You hear even a lot of her women supporters, her former supporters, complaining about everything from crime, to — including rapes, more rapes against women and children, and corruption. Could this — how do you think this will play in Liberia? What are you hearing?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, you’re already hearing, right? The ones that are not applauding today are the opposition candidates.

And they have been very vocal today, saying that the timing of this award, so close to the election — elections are Oct. 11, next week, Tuesday — the timing is certainly not in favor of the opposition candidates, right?

So they have been very vocal. But I think clearly with all the celebration and all the acknowledgment that, after 26 years of war, the challenges are many, I think what you have in the country is a sense that the high expectations, the demands for change, you know, those expectations haven’t really been met.

So, I think there was a real worry that the elections would be a difficult one for the incumbent, for the ruling party. It may still be difficult, but clearly the platform of now a Nobel laureate, recognition like this at the international level, it may — we will see what happens on Tuesday, on Election Day, right, but it may also have some sway.

MARGARET WARNER: And what impact do you think this will have on Karman? She is in a potentially precarious situation out here in this tent city, given the real violence that is going on between the opposition and the government and even within the opposition.

MALINI PATEL: She made that choice a long time ago. She made the choice. She knew the risk. She walked in with open eyes.

She has children. She knows the risk to her family, but she’s committed. And so I think she is at a place where she knows anything can happen, but she will still fight. She will still fight for the voice.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly to you both, in what way would this — or would it concretely advance the cause of women being involved in all levels of government, in negotiating peace, in the formation of democratic societies, which is what the Nobel Committee said they want to convey with this?

EMIRA WOODS: Absolutely. You know…

MARGARET WARNER: Does it? And is it concrete or is it symbolic?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, there are some international conventions. There is this — what is called the U.N. Revolution 1375, which calls for the inclusion of women in peace processes, understanding the unique role that women must play in the path for peace.

But those conventions, they’re all words on — it is the work of people like those who were recognized today, right, that is actually living the vision of those conventions and those rules.

MARGARET WARNER: And Malini?

MALINI PATEL: I agree. You’re dealing with people who have actually made change. It is an inspiration, because these are people at the grassroots level actually doing something. That means anybody can.

MARGARET WARNER: Malini Patel and Emira Woods, thank you both very much for being with us.

EMIRA WOODS: A pleasure. Thank you.

MALINI PATEL: Thank you.