In 2011, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female president in Africa, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Liberian peace builder and social worker Leymah Roberta Gbowee and Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman. The three women were honored for “their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
For the two Liberians, the Nobel Prize is an important acknowledgment of the role they play in promoting the inclusion of women in post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction. It represents the huge progress that countless individuals and organizations around the world are making to promote and entrench women’s participation in all aspects of nation building.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election as president of Liberia in 2005 was a milestone for the role of women in public life in Africa. In her inauguration speech, she said her priority was to "empower Liberian women in all areas of our national life." In pursuit of this goal, she established a nongovernmental, community-based development organization, MESUAGON, which works toward improving the plight of women and girls—especially single mothers—through basic skills training, literacy, and farming.
She also launched the Liberia Education Trust. The organization’s primary objective is to construct 50 schools as a means of increasing girls’ enrollment, train 500 teachers—with a focus on female teachers as a way of encouraging girls’ enrollment and retention—and award 5,000 scholarships to girls. The Open Society Foundations' initial support was instrumental in leveraging additional funding for the organization’s work in post-conflict Liberia. The Liberia Education Trust–Monrovia continues to benefit from the support of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and its Education Support Program. We recently funded a reading-enrichment program for girls in primary school who hail from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund, established in Sirleaf's name, is geared towards improving the economic and social status of women traders and their immediate families and communities. Over 600 market women have benefited from the fund's micro-credit program, and more than 500 have been taught how to read and write. The Sirleaf Market Women's Fund and the Liberia Education Trust both have national and international boards who are primarily women and who have made distinct efforts to contribute to the welfare and advancement of women’s rights and empowerment in Africa.
Less known globally, Leymah Gbowee championed peaceful sit-in protests in Monrovia involving thousands of women. During the negotiation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Ghana in 2003, she led hundreds of women—mostly refugees—to force then president Charles Taylor and the other warring factions to attend the peace talks, barricading the exits to prevent them from leaving the conference room until a peace agreement was signed.
Leymah’s community-driven efforts with the Liberia chapter of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding motivated her to partner with Thelma Ekiyor, former head of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa spin-off the West Africa Civil Society Institute, and Ecoma Bassey Alaga to establish the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN). Based in Accra, Ghana, WIPSEN has been active in promoting women’s participation in peace building in the subregion. Gbowee was hailed for mobilizing women “across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war” that had raged for years in Liberia and for ensuring “women’s participation in elections.” Recently, with support from OSIWA, WIPSEN deployed the West African Women’s Elections Observation team to monitor the Liberian elections.
Although the Nobel award to the three women is a victory for the voices of marginalized women across the world, it nevertheless points to the immense challenges that women continue to face. This is particularly evident in Africa, where the role of women in the public as well as the private sphere remains ambiguous. While women’s activities in the formal and informal economy are widely recognized as a driving force of growth, they nevertheless continue to be marginalized in decision-making roles in the fields of governance and politics as cultural prejudice and stereotypes remain deeply rooted. There is no doubt that women’s participation is critical in conflict management and reconciliation, as the work of President Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee has clearly shown; however the immense resources that women can bring to peace-building processes remain largely untapped.
In its citation the Nobel Committee noted, “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.” This is so true in West Africa, where gender inequality remains a significant challenge that has constrained the development of open societies. Our work aims to address this challenge by expanding the participation of women, youth, and other citizens in decision-making processes, and supporting initiatives to engage women in governance. Among other things, we must encourage the development of vibrant, forward-looking women’s leadership and provide for the exchange of experiences and knowledge between women leaders. Without this the struggles of these three women for an open society will not be fully realized.