OSLO, Norway — The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to three champions of women’s rights in Africa and the Middle East — including one who studied in Madison — in an attempt to bolster the role of women in bringing democracy to nations suffering from autocratic rule and civil strife.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee split the prize between Tawakkul Karman, a leader of anti-government protests in Yemen; Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to win a free presidential election in Africa; and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, who campaigned against the use of rape as a weapon in her country’s brutal civil war.
Johnson Sirleaf’s biography on her government website says she studied at the now-defunct Madison Business College. She went on to get a Master’s degree from Harvard University in 1971.
The 72-year-old Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first democratically elected female leader in 2005. The Nobel committee cited her efforts to secure peace in Liberia, promote economic development and strengthen the position of women. She lived in Madison from 1962 to 1964, originally coming here to accompany her then-husband, James Sirleaf, who earned a government scholarship to study agriculture at UW-Madison.
Madison is a footnote in her story, but one she remembers fondly. “In most ways, I enjoyed my time in Madison,” she wrote in a 2009 autobiography. “The city was easily negotiable, and the people were kind.”
By choosing Karman, the first Arab woman to win the peace prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee found a way to associate the $1.5 million award with the uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East without citing them alone, which would have been problematic.
Prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said it was also difficult to identify the leaders of the Arab Spring among the scores of activists who have spearheaded protests using social media.
“We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context,” Jagland told reporters. “Namely, if one fails to include the women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy.”
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. She died last month at 71.
Johnson Sirleaf, 72, became Africa’s first democratically elected female president after winning a 2005 election in Liberia, a country created to settle freed American slaves in 1847.
Fighting began in 1989, when Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia rebel group launched an armed uprising. His forces and rebel fighters were charged with looting Liberia’s small diamond reserves to buy arms, along with smuggling gems from Sierra Leone’s more expansive diamond fields for export through Liberian ports.
Even on a continent long plagued with violence, the civil war in Liberia stood out for its cruelty. Taylor’s soldiers ate the hearts of slain enemies and decorated checkpoints with human entrails.
In elections in 1997, Johnson Sirleaf had run second to Taylor. Though she lost by a landslide, she rose to national prominence and earned the nickname, “Iron Lady.” Liberia finally emerged from its civil strife in 2003, with Taylor’s ouster.
Johnson Sirleaf was seen as a reformer and peacemaker in Liberia when she took office. She is running for re-election on Tuesday and opponents in the presidential campaign have accused her of buying votes and using government funds to campaign. Her camp denies the charges.
“This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation,” Johnson Sirleaf said Friday from her home in Monrovia. “Liberians should be proud.”
Gbowee, 32, has long campaigned for the rights of women and against rape, organizing Christian and Muslim women to challenge Liberia’s warlords. In 2003, she led hundreds of female protesters through Monrovia to demand swift disarmament of fighters who preyed on women during her country’s near-constant civil war.
She was honored by the committee for mobilizing women “across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections.”
Karman is a mother of three from Taiz, a city in southern Yemen that is a hotbed of resistance against the ruling regime. She now lives in the capital, Sanaa.
— State Journal’s Dan Simmons contributed to this report.