News Politics

“We Are Dancing:” Three Women Leaders Win Nobel Peace Prize

Jodi Jacobson

Take note of this historic day: Three women leaders have won the Nobel peace prize. They include Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president of a country in Africa, peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia, and Tawakul Karman a pro-democracy campaigner from Yemen.

Take note of this historic day for today and for posterity: Three women leaders have won the Nobel peace prize.

The three include Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president of a country in Africa, peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia, and Tawakul Karman, a pro-democracy campaigner from Yemen.

As noted by the New York Times, they are the “first women to win the prize since Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, who died last month, was named as the laureate in 2004. Most of the recipients in the award’s 110-year history have been men, and the award seemed designed to give impetus to the cause for women’s rights around the world.”


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“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,” said the citation read to reporters by Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who heads the Oslo-based Nobel committee that chooses the winner of the $1.5 million prize.

In a subsequent interview, he described the prize as “a very important signal to women all over the world.”


Its an oft-repeated sentiment but one that will only become reality as more women like Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman not only take the reins of leadership–as so many women do everywhere in the world everyday against all odds–but are also recognized and held up as examples that seed the dreams of women and girls everywhere.

Sirleaf has, among other things, committed herself to advancing gender equality by increasing the presence of women in politics and the judiciary, mandating free education for children, and setting up the Women Market Fund, in addition to implementing international conventions for the protection of women’s rights in Liberia, such as SCR 1325 of the UN Security Council, a landmark legal and political framework adopted by the United Nations in 2000 that acknowledges the importance of the participation of women and the inclusion of gender perspectives in peace negotiations, humanitarian planning, peacekeeping operations, post-conflict peacebuilding and governance.

Gbowee is the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra, Ghana. She is a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). During her tenure as coordinator for WIPNET/WANEP, Ms. Gbowee organized collaborative peace-building initiatives for a network of women peace builders from 9 of Liberia’s 15 counties. She also served as the commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Tawakal Karman, who was featured in TIME magazine in February of this year, is the chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization that defends human rights and freedom of expression, and a fierce advocate of Yemeni youth.

Karman told TIME she has protested hundreds of times, both in the country’s north and the south, but became particularly energized by the refusal of the government to intervene in the case of the Ja’ashin, a group of 30 families that were expelled from their village when the land was given to a tribal leader close to the President.

“I couldn’t see any sort of human rights or corruption report that could shake this regime. They never responded to one of our demands. It made it clear to me that this regime must fall.”

She also said watching the dictators in Tunisia, then Egypt, fall has given her, and the protest movement, a renewed energy. “The goal is to change the regime by the slogan we learned from the Tunisian revolution, ‘The people want the regime to fall.’ We are using the same methods and the same words from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. They taught us how to become organized.”

In response to the Nobel committee’s announcement, Bushuben Keita, a spokesman for Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party, declared:

“We are dancing. This is the thing that we have been saying, progress has been made in Liberia. We’ve come through 14 years of war and we have come to sustained peace. We’ve already started dancing.”

To Keita, I would say: Women around the world are dancing with you.

Analysis Maternity and Birthing

In Malawi, Banda’s Succession to Presidency Could Dramatically Improve Women’s Lives

Jessica Mack

With all due respect to the late President Bingu, his death opened a rare window for reform Malawi, and golden opportunity – especially for Malawi’s women. Joyce Banda is a widely respected and heralded champion for women’s rights and health, and has never been shy to speak her mind about it.

Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack suddenly this month, enabling Vice President Joyce Banda to succeed the helm. This will almost certainly change – and perhaps save – the lives of millions of Malawian women.

Banda, the country’s first female Vice President and leader of the opposition party, had been embroiled in a political struggle for months as Bingu had tried to remove her. Bingu’s move to edge her out was part of his tightening grip overall, foreshadowing what could have been another stubborn and potentially bloody transfer of power after 2014 elections, and almost certainly not to Banda.

With all due respect to the late Bingu, his death opened a rare window for reform Malawi, and golden opportunity – especially for Malawi’s women. Joyce Banda is a widely-respected and heralded champion for women’s rights and health, and has never been shy to speak her mind about it.

Banda is Southern Africa’s first female head of state, and the continent’s second (after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf). Isobel Coleman at the Center for Foreign Relations recently called her “a remarkable person who despite the odds, just might be able to put Malawi on a positive path,” as compared to her “disaster” of a predecessor. Banda left an abusive marriage as a young mother of three, and went on to found several small businesses and organizations for women before being elected to Parliament in 1999.

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She is a woman of both voice and action. Almost immediately upon taking office, she issued a directive to the Ministry of Health to appoint two OB/GYN specialists to the Ethel Mutharika Maternity Hospital to support deliveries there. In a recent press conference, she said she would do anything in her capacity to ensure that the country’s maternal mortality rate is reduced. Banda herself suffered excessive bleeding after giving birth, and nearly lost her life. Though the United Nations estimates that maternal mortality in Malawi was nearly halved between 1998 and 2008, still 3,000 women a year die needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth. Just 42 percent of married women report modern contraceptive use. 

Cultural taboos around women’s sexual and reproductive health, as well as the sheer inaccessibility of services define reality for many Malawian women. A lack of skilled personnel, whether doctors, midwives, or community health workers, to help women deliver safely is also a major factor in maternal deaths. Unsafe abortion is likely a major contributor as well. Abortion in Malawi is prohibited entirely, except to save a woman’s life, and even then spousal permission is required. Perhaps this is something Banda might be willing to step up and address. Systemic devaluation of women’s lives is a problem too, prompting Banda to single out village chiefs as gatekeepers for maternal health in the largely rural nation.

“They are the custodians of our culture and tradition. If you don’t include those chiefs, if you don’t integrate them, you can’t win in the area of maternal health.”

The year 2015 is the deadline to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight major targets to improving the lives and health of the world’s poorest. A recent report by the Malawian Government says the country is on-track to meet five of the eight goals, though MDG 5 – to improve maternal health – is not one of them. African leaders are under increasing pressure from their constituents and donors to turn things around for women in their countries and there are few glimmers of hope. Banda could make huge waves on this issue in just a short while.

Banda is not only an advocate for women’s health, but economic empowerment too. In 1997, she won the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger. Landlocked Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its economy relies heavily on agriculture, and women farmers form the engine that runs it. Banda has noted that women in Malawi are conspicuously absent when it comes to economic decision-making, and that it is critical to put more of the country’s money in the hands of its mothers. If anyone can do that, it looks like she can.

Banda is also a staunch supporter of girls’ education. Last year, in a Q&A with the Global Post, she told the story of a childhood friend forced to leave high school after the $12 school fees became too high.

“I went on to go to college and I became the vice president of Malawi. She is still where she was 30 years ago. The vicious cycle of poverty kept her there and took away her options. I made up my mind … whatever would happen in my life, I would try to send girls to schools.”

Such clarity of vision forward and backward is rare in a leader, but seems to be Banda’s defining trait.

She has already distinguished herself as a committed and articulate leader on women’s health and rights. Now with the reigns, in a historic twist of events, she can finally demonstrate what that vision, realized, can do for women. 

Roundups Media

Global Roundup: Are Anti-Trafficking Efforts Doing More Harm Than Good?

Jessica Mack

Weekly global roundup: "virginity test" doctor is acquitted in Egypt while women's football gathers momentum; condoms may literally save South Africa; a rosier picture of sex work in Thailand; journalist threatened for exposing female genital cutting in Liberia; and a steamy drama series in Kenya tackles sexual taboos.

Welcome to our new Weekly Global Reproductive Justice Roundup! Each week, reporter Jessica Mack will summarize reproductive and sexual health and justice news from around the world.  We will still report in depth on some of these stories, but we want to make sure you get a sense of the rest and the best.

In Egypt, Women’s Football V. ‘Virginity Tests’                        
Sahar El-Hawary is North Africa’s first female referee, and is pioneering female football in Egypt. Al Jazeera profiled her story and work this month as part of their wonderful Africa on the Move series, which features uplifting stories from across the continent. The piece is beautifully done and well worth the watch. El-Hawary grew up with brothers and a father who were rabid football fans, and dreamed of playing and coaching herself. Two decades ago she began training a girls’ team in the secrecy of her own home, and today she has helped to set up girls teams in almost every region of the country. She recruits female players, coaches and referees, and in the process is helping undo a male-dominated sport and culture. Her son Omar helps manages the team. “Women can change the structure of societies in these areas,” she says. Here’s a video of one girls team playing back in 2007, which is pretty bad ass.

Meanwhile, women in Egypt are facing other setbacks. Last week a military court acquitted an army doctor accused of conducting forced “virginity tests” on female protesters last year. Activist Samira Ibrahim, who initially brought the charges, said the entire trial and resulting acquittal was “a joke, a theatre.” Ibrahim and other female detainees had alleged that military personnel sexually assaulted, harassed, and abused them in various grotesque ways – including “testing” to see whether they were virgins. (Let’s remember that penetration by any object without consent is rape, folks.) In response, one Army general deflected: “We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place.” Wow, just wow. Via Al Jazeera and VOA.

Thank You, Condoms: South Africa’s New HIV/AIDS Infections Plummet
South Africa, where 17 percent of adults ages 15 to 49 are HIV-positive, shoulders a heavy AIDS burden, but the rate of new infections in the country has dropped dramatically in the last decade. A study released last month suggests that this is largely due to increased condom use. In 2009, 75 percent of young South African men reported condom use at their last sexual encounter, compared to just  20 percent in 1999. It’s a significant revelation that such a simple and widely available tool can be so effective, given some setbacks and delays with other prevention options. Lack of condom use has been attributed to cultural attitudes toward masculinity, perceptions of promiscuity, and taboos about sex more broadly, but that is changing and national leadership on this issue has stepped way up. Remember when the Pope claimed that condoms would not help Africa’s AIDS crisis? Still a ways to go, but it’s looking like he was wrong. Via Economist.

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A New Snapshot of (Positive) Sex Work in Thailand
A new report by the Empower Foundation, a sex workers’ rights group in Thailand, offers a more nuanced picture of the country’s sex work industry – a well-developed, perhaps world-famous, and now increasingly legitimate sector for many. Hit & Run: Sex Workers’ Research on Anti-trafficking in Thailand is the result of a year-long survey implemented by sex workers among sex workers, to uncover the state of the industry. The report finds that sex workers are better off and better connected than many thought. Sex workers have access to hi-tech tools (e.g. smart phones) and use them to stay connected and safe; migration is part of the culture of sex work, and often helpful/voluntary (i.e. sex ‘trade’ not ‘trafficking’); and the average sex worker makes enough money to comfortably take care of his/her family. Of course it’s not positive all the time for everyone. But anti-trafficking groups and initiatives in Southeast Asia are a dime a dozen with many ineffective, oppressive, or all together useless. Everyone from Nicholas Kristof to Ashton Kutcher is trying to “save” girls and women and while these efforts may be well-meaning they tend to erase critical nuances in the issue and drown out the voices and agencies of sex workers themselves. “There are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women exploited by traffickers,” Empower director Chantawipa Apisuk said.  Via Nation Multimedia.

Story on Genital Cutting in Liberia Draws Threats
A Liberian journalist who published a piece on the persistence of female genital cutting in the Sande tradition this week has received threats to her wellbing. Mae Azango, a fellow for New Narratives and the Pulitzer Center, said that just days after her piece was published she received phone messages threatening to injure her for speaking out. Azango has not been sleeping at her house since. Signaling just how sensitive this issue is, Azango’s interview subject requested a pseudonym as protection for even speaking about her experience with the practice. As she point out, Liberia is one of five countries in Africa still holding on to the practice and little data exists to depict its magnitude. Other countries, including regional neighbor Senegal, have been open about the challenges in uprooting the practice but have become well-known for their rapid abandonment of the practice. It does beg the question though: why has this issue remained so rooted and clandestine in Liberia? Why, especially, when the country is under the tenure of Africa’s first female president (now in her second term) Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who won a Nobel Peace Prize last year along with her country-woman (and fellow activist!) Leymah Gbowee. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) yesterday issued a letter to President Johnson-Sirleaf requesting formal protection for Azango. Via CPJ.

Drama Series in Kenya Takes on Sexual Taboos

Shuga: Love, Sex, Money is a six-part drama series based in Nairobi, Kenya and looks pretty awesome. It’s racy, soap operatic, filled with good-looking and talented African actors, and meant to address persistent health and social taboos that have gone unaddressed for too long. A joint effort by MTV, the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, UNICEF and others, the series looks at rape, transactional sex, and other issues young people are navigating without many resources. It will be shown in 70 countries around the world. The series is also being used in youth HIV prevention and education programs, and has an accompanying toolkit to facilitate discussions and encourage status knowledge and testing. You can join discussions of “Shuga” online here. Via Humanosphere.


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