From the limitations of the kitchen’s four cloistering walls to the boundless expanse of politics, women have come a long way from their domestic culinary constrictions.
They have joined in terminating civil wars, leading mass movements, and reforming entire countries, as exemplified by the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates of 2011.
Selected for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian women’s rights advocate Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni peace activist Tawakkul Karman were granted this year’s award, demonstrating both the advancement in women’s roles in their respective countries, and the recognition of the necessity of women’s participation for achieving development, democracy, and peace.
The triad, following only 12 other women chosen for the Nobel Prize over its 110 years, were selected both to send a message about women’s resilient voices, and because of the significant work already done by each in empowering their respective countries’ oppressed women: Sirleaf in national policy, Gbowee in the Women for Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, and Karman in the non-violent struggle for democracy and equal rights.
Sirleaf, the first and currently only female African head of state, was elected in 2005 with her urgent priority of ‘empowering Liberian women in all areas of our national life,’ successfully doing so by introducing compulsory primary education and increasing the enrollment of girls in schools by 40 per cent, instituting micro-finance projects for women and property laws to ensure their operation, and appointing women to an unprecedented proportion of her cabinet.
To address the most daunting oppression of women in her country, the widespread use of rape as a weapon during the 14 years of civil war and affecting 75 per cent of the female population, Sirleaf’s first and perhaps most important contribution in office was the immediate implementation of the ‘rape law,’ which meant toughening the penalty for the crime (which in the past offered the option of bail), broadening its definition, and breaking the taboo on the repressed and stigmatized issue.
Sirleaf’s presidency was only enabled through Gbowee’s campaign accelerating the end of Liberia’s civil war. Through mobilizing the country’s mothers and wives into mass demonstrations and by uniting Christians and Muslims to pressure then-president Charles Taylor into facilitating peace negotiations between the fighting rebel factions, Liberia’s fourteen years of rape, slaughter, and displacement were moved to an official close through the non-violent delegation of women.
Moving from 2003 Liberia to present day Yemen, Kamran’s contentiously uncovered face lies at the head of the Arab spring movement demanding the relinquishment of Saleh’s 33 year hold on power. Pushing for Yemeni democracy by propagating women’s inclusion in free speech through her co-founded group Women Journalists Without Chains, as well as through heading protests against government corruption, the young activist has overstepped her traditionally complacent, uneducated position and has spearheaded the most momentous revolution in her country’s history.
Clear inspiration for women in Liberia and Yemen to similarly strain their voices and fight for their indisputable rights, the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates are exemplary figures demonstrating women’s extensive advancement and the progress thus far accomplished in prompting equal rights. Nevertheless, in a broader perspective, gender inequality is still immensely prevalent in these two countries, and beyond the recognition resulting from Sirleaf, Gbowee, and Tawakkul’s work, it is equally important for young people to follow these women’s example.
Despite Sirleaf’s 2006 implementation of the rape law, amongst other sexual and gender-based violent acts, rape still remains rampant in Liberia. The Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia (AFELL) receives at least six reports of rape daily though the majority of cases still remain undisclosed, perpetrated by influential community members such as teachers, religious leaders, and fathers, and often perceived as a matter to be settled outside the judicial system.
Furthermore, within Sirleaf’s amended law, obstacles still remain in attaining justice for the minority of reported victims: the courts still do not function to full capacity and only operate 42 days a year. Lawyers are scarce and refrain from taking on cases in rural areas (where rape is most common), and the entire process is often too expensive for the already stigmatized and often unemployed survivors. Thus, although no longer a tool in civil war, rape persists in Liberia due to societal norms, and is perpetuated through child marriages, prostitution, trafficking, and its unchallenged practices of domestic violence.
Similarly, as Tawakkul oversteps traditional boundaries in Yemen, great discrepancies still stand and affect women at the fundamental level of the home. Yemen holds one of the highest records of child marriages in the world, due to a cultural value of virginity, young girls’ tendency for acting as more submissive wives, and the belief that they carry less of a risk for HIV/AIDS. There is little protection for spousal abuse and no system for its investigation. Cases are rarely reported due to stigma and when they are disclosed, divorce is strongly discouraged as women require valid justification for the proceedings while men require none.
Gender-based violence thus violates the basic human rights of women in Liberia and Yemen, but also impedes the overarching goals of development, democracy, and peace. When oppression, violence, and inequality are normalized in society, it is difficult to teach new values.
In Liberia, as rape persists unpunished, women remain stigmatized and ostracized as the shame imposed on them leads to communal alienation, negatively impacting their economic and social development as their reputation is irreversibly sullied.
In Yemen, as women’s voices remain repressed in their home environment, the probability of their public activity severely diminishes as their voices are habituated into silence, their presence in school remains low, the illiteracy rate amongst women standing at 62.1 per cent in comparison to the 29.8 per cent for men, and the judicial system’s double standard continues unchallenged.
Therefore development, democracy, and peace are only possible through the rectification of women’s rights on a smaller scale which in turn will reflect on society and the bigger picture. Development is not possible with the marginalization of sexually abused women economically burdening society with their unjustified restrictions in the workforce; their contribution would be exponentially more beneficial to their individual empowerment and their country’s progress. Democracy, furthermore, is not theoretically possible when half a population finds its voice being suppressed and its presence in politics barely existent.
Women add fresh and varied opinions to politics, bring in a different and crucial perspective, and have a unique power to mobilize. Peace, lastly, is only completely possible if present in every stratum of society, and if the injustices inflicted upon women, such as rape or accepted domestic violence, persist, the underlying violence will never result in communal peace.
President Sirleaf and social activists Gbowee and Tawakkul thus irrefutably exhibit the capability of women in making remarkable differences in their universally extrapolated goals, and although only chipping a dent in the entire issue of women’s rights, the three hold the potential for future advancements and the power to motivate others.
As the world persistently searches for methods in solving its multitude of problems, a greater emphasis must to be placed on ameliorating the role of women, as suggested by the Nobel committee, since ultimately, the world’s prime goals are impossible without equal rights.