Nobel award is a victory for the Arab Spring and women's rights

Peace Prize is shared between three of Africa's most inspirational figures
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The Nobel Peace prize was awarded jointly to three champions of women's rights yesterday, two of them from war-ravaged Liberia and one from current trouble spot Yemen.

The Committee in Norway split the prize between Tawakul Karman, who has come to prominence during the Arab Spring as a leader of anti-government protests in Yemen; Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, who campaigned against rape by soldiers during the civil war; and fellow Liberian Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first democrati- cally elected president.

The Nobel citation commended the trio's "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights".

"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," it said.

The announcement was an endorsement of the Arab Spring that has swept North Africa and the Middle East and news of it reached Mrs Karman at a protest camp where demonstrators have for months been calling on Yemen's president to step down. She said it was a "victory for the Arab Spring" and a "sign that dictators must go".

Prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said: "We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context. Namely, if one fails to include the women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy."

It was another venture into sensitive politics from the committee in Oslo which was accused by China last year of interfering in its political affairs for its choice of dissident Liu Xiaobo. This year's decision to award Mrs Johnson Sirleaf only four days before voting begins in a tight election contest in Liberia also stirred some controversy in West Africa.

Her main rival for the Liberian presidency Winston Tubman said the committee was "wrong" to make the award and described her as a "warmonger" for her alleged support of warlord Charles Taylor. Voters go to the polls next Tuesday in the country founded in 1847 by freed American slaves. It's only the second election since the country emerged from 14 years of war that left 200,000 dead and Liberia's infrastructure shattered.

Johnson Sirleaf responded to the prize yesterday: "I believe we both [Gbowee and I] accept this on behalf of the Liberian people, and the credit goes to the Liberian people," she said on the steps of her residence in Monrovia. "This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation."

The lesser known of the two Liberian laureates, Ms Gbowee, heard of the prize only after landing in New York where she plans to promote her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers. The news reached the 39-year-old in the form of a text message from a friend which read: "Nobel, Nobel, Nobel".

"The thing is when you have good news you want to share it with someone," she told Reuters. "The guy who sat next to me on the five-hour flight, we never spoke to each other, but I had to tap him and say 'Sir, I just won the Nobel."

She came to prominence in Liberia when she urged the wives and girlfriends of warring factions to deny them sex until they laid down their arms. Her efforts began on a small scale at a fish market where she led prayers and songs for reconciliation and peace.

Winners who caused a stir

Liu Xiaobo

The Chinese dissident was unable to receive his award in 2010 as he was then, and remains, in prison. Mr Liu was jailed for 11 years in December 2009 for writing a manifesto calling for free speech and multi-party elections in China. Ministers in China called the award "an obscenity".

Barack Obama

The Nobel committee was criticised for awarding the prize to President Obama in 2009. Nominations closed only two weeks after his inauguration. The president himself said he did not belong in the company of other former winners, but accepted the award anyway.

Wangari Maathai

The Kenyan forests campaigner who died two weeks ago was given the award in 2004 but subsequently caused a stir when she said that "evil-minded scientists" in the developed world had created Aids to attack the African population. She later said the remarks were taken out of context.

Carl von Ossietzky

The journalist and pacifist was awarded the prize in 1936 for his work on arms control and human rights. He had spoken out against Adolf Hitler and the German government reacted with fury and did not allow him to collect the award.