Recognising the female peacemakers: The Nobel cause

It has been around since 1901, but only 12 women have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now a campaign aims to award it to 1,000 of them. Kate Finnigan reports
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A Thousand Women for the Nobel Peace Prize is the brainchild of Gaby Vermot-Mangold, the anthropologist and member of the Swiss parliament, who says she was inspired to launch the campaign while working with refugees at camps in Africa.

"I have nothing against handshakes and road-maps and meetings at Camp David," she says on the phone from Switzerland. "But the problem is that the peacemaking possibilities that come from such things are centred in politics. What we are campaigning for with this nomination is a recognition of peacemaking outside politics."

Since the Nobel Peace Prize (pictured) was established in 1901, only 12 women have won it. Two of them, Shirin Ebadi and Wangari Maathai, have won it in the past two years, compared with 80 men and 20 organisations.

Joan Ruddock, the former women's minister, believes this campaign should begin to set the balance. "In most of the great prizes of the world women are nominated or take part in much smaller numbers," she says. "Men are better at networking and women are much more sensitive to being in the limelight and putting themselves forward. It's important and typical that this is a collective nomination."

Because a thousand names cannot officially be nominated, the campaign, which has the patronage of Unesco, has put forward the names of three people whose identities will not be announced unless one of the three wins. "The understanding is that these individuals did not apply as individuals but as representatives of the 1,000 we have nominated," says Ms Vermot-Mangold. "If one of these women wins, they all win." Of the 10 British nominees, the women range from Helen John, 67, the vice-president of CND, to Jo Wilding, 31, who last year took a circus to Iraq.

"This nomination is weird," says Jo Wilding while laughing. Shehas visited Iraq three times, bringing medical aid, equipment and, more recently, the Boomchucka Circus, which toured Baghdad and northern Iraq for three months in 2003. She found herself driving ambulances during the siege in Fallujah last April.

"I've seen so many other women who've worked longer and harder than me. But then it's symbolic, isn't it? It's not about individuals. It's about the unrecognised people out there who are working continually without resources or grey suits or aeroplanes," she says.

Patricia Gaffney, one of the nominees and the chair of the British arm of Pax Christi, a Christian peace and justice organisation, agrees. "This nomination contrasts with so many current political models that focus on the individual. Like G8, for example. The fact that this isn't top-down but coming from grassroots affirms the very nature of the work. There's a tendency to want heroes of peace like there are heroes of war," says Cynthia Cockburn, speaking for the peace organisation Women in Black, which is also on the British shortlist. "But the committee must see what it stands for.

"Yes, it's difficult and messy having a collective of 1,000 women but it's not just an inconvenience. It is saying something very valuable. If Nobel says no now, at a time when women are very visibly working hard for peace, I don't think they'll ever say yes."

But it is perhaps Kate Galloway – a 52-year-old nominee and leader of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian group which has been working, and praying, for peace since 1938 – who most succinctly sums up just why women have so often been overlooked.

"The two women who've won the Nobel in recent years have been operating in situations of considerable challenge," she says.

"I think there's a growing recognition that women work in a different way to men. People like Bono and the Pope have worldwide audiences. We're mostly shouting at 100 people in a hall. But it's still important." With this campaign, it is hoped that the numbers in the hall might just get a little bigger.

Wangari Maathai, winner 2004

Maathai, 65, was the first African woman to win the honour – for promoting ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She also stood up against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. She ran for the presidency in 1997 and in 2002 was elected to parliament with 98 per cent of her constituency vote.

Shirin Ebadi, 2003

Her campaigns for democracy and greater rights for women and children have brought Ebadi, above, into conflict with conservative clerics. Ebadi, 58, married with two daughters, is credited with being a driving force behind the reform of family law in Iran by seeking changes in divorce and inheritance. She was the country's first female judge.

Jody Williams, 1997

Williams, left, has co-ordinated the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) since 1991. A week before she and the ICBL jointly received the prize, 122 countries signed the Ottawa Treaty outlawing their production. The treaty was made international law on 1 March 1999, though her own country, the US, has not signed up.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum, 1992

The Guatemalan Indian-rights activist, 46, is a Mayan Indian of the Quiché group. Her father, a leader of a peasant group opposed to the military government, died in a fire while protesting against abuses by the military. Her younger brother was tortured and killed and her mother was arrested shortly afterwards, tortured, raped and then killed.

Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991

Suu Kyi, 60, has become a symbol of heroic and peaceful resistance. She was two years old when her father, then the de facto prime minister of Burma, was killed. Her National League for Democracy won more than 80 per cent of the parliamentary seats that were contested in 1990, but the junta ignored the result. She has been under house arrest for much of the period from July 1989.

Alva Myrdal, 1982

The Swedish diplomat, government minister and advocate of nuclear disarmament was the co-recipient of the prize with Alfonso García Robles of Mexico. Myrdal, who died in 1986, served as a director of the UN Department of Social Welfare during 1949-50 and became director of the Unesco Department of Social Sciences in 1951.

Mother Teresa, 1979

The internationally renowned and controversial nun, who died in 1997, founded the Missionaries of Charity. When awarded the prize, Mother Teresa, who was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia, refused the conventional ceremonial banquet and asked for the $6,000 funds to be diverted to the poor in Calcutta.

Mairéad Corrigan and Betty Williams, 1976

Williams, 62, far right, founded the Northern Ireland Peace Movement (later renamed Community of Peace People) with Corrigan, 61, in August 1976 after the two women witnessed a car being chased by the security forces veer off the road and kill the three young children of Corrigan's sister. Their organisation brought thousands of Catholics and Protestants out on to the streets together to demand an end to violence. In March 2003 Corrigan was arrested at a non-violent prayer protest against the war in Iraq outside the White House in Washington.

Emily Greene Balch, 1946

Balch, left, was an American sociologist, political scientist, economist and pacifist who led the women's movement for peace during and after the First World War. She died in 1961.

Jane Addams, 1931

Addams, right, was the first American woman to receive the prize. She is remembered primarily as a founder of the Settlement House Movement. She died in Illinois in 1935.

Baroness Bertha von Suttner, 1905

She was not only the prize's first female recipient but is credited with influencing Alfred Nobel to establish it. Her reputation was so highly acclaimed that in a tour of the US she was received by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Profiles by Louise Cotton