We should truly celebrate the fact that this year’s Nobel peace prize has been awarded to three women who in various ways have demonstrated the decisive nature of women’s participation for efforts to create lasting peace. For far too long, understandings of women’s roles in war have been marked by a one-sided focus on their need for protection. Like children and old people, women have generally been viewed as helpless victims of war and violence. Their political significance is often defined in terms of their need for protection, rather than what they can contribute to efforts to bring an end to conflict and rebuild society after war.
The 2011 Nobel peace prize highlights the important roles that women play in war and peace, even when the conditions for their involvement are not always optimal. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman are not simply female role models: they are three human beings who have each made an important contribution to democracy, freedom of speech and peace – as well as against abuse and repression. By giving the prize to three women who – from different starting points and using different means – have succeeded in influencing political developments in their own countries, the Nobel committee also highlights the fact that women’s influence takes many forms.
The prize, the Committee declares, has been awarded to these three women ‘on account of their nonviolent struggle for the security of women and women’s right to participate fully in peacebuilding work’. The commitment to using nonviolent means – particularly visible in the cases of Gbowee og Karman – is important here, just as it was in the award of last year prize’s to Liu Xiabao. In this, the committee is taking up an old theme in the peace prize’s history. On many occasions in its early years, prior to World War I, the prize was awarded to individuals who espoused a purely pacifist agenda.
It is a commonly held view that the involvement of women in issues of peace and conflict stems from pacifist convictions. Indeed, it is often suggested that women will be more concerned with finding nonviolent ways to resolve heated conflicts because of the nature of the maternal role and children’s need for protection. However, the idea that women are biologically inclined to pacifism seems rather weak. Women comprised a large part of the guerrilla forces active in many of Central America’s conflicts during the 1980s, while their percentage among the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka was high.
Though women’s participation in political processes may be vital for peace, this does not mean that women are equipped from birth with a desire to work in such a direction. The fact that women have agency also entails that they are able both to incite and to carry out acts of violence. There is little to suggest, for example, that female heads of state behave more peaceably than their male colleagues. Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir were all prominent female heads of state who were prepared to resort to harsh measures to achieve their goals.
This is the first time that the prize has been dedicated to highlighting women’s legitimate role. This is a great source of pleasure in itself, especially since this year’s prize increases the number of women who have received the prestigious award from 12 to 15. However, this is not just a prize for women. Rather, it emphasizes that we will all benefit from a world in which women and men are able to participate equally in political processes, and that equal relations between the two sexes are an important element of a peaceful society. Through a more gender-balanced understanding of armed conflict, along with what is required to end it, we will hopefully be able to achieve a more lasting peace.
Kristian Berg Harpviken and Inger Skjelsbæk, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)