by Bjoern Amland

OSLO, Norway (AP)—The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three champions of women’s rights in Africa and the Middle East on Friday in an attempt to bolster the role of women in struggles to bring democracy to nations suffering from autocratic rule and civil strife.

RIGHTS CHAMPIONS—Africa’s first democratically elected female president, a Liberian peace activist and a woman who stood up to Yemen’s authoritarian regime won the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 7, for their work to secure women’s rights. Seen from left: Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (AP Photo)

The Norwegian Nobel Committee split the prize between Tawakkul Karman, a leader of anti-government protests in Yemen; Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to win a free presidential election in Africa; and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, who campaigned against the use of rape as a weapon in her country’s brutal civil war.

By picking Karman—the first Arab woman to win the peace prize—the Norwegian Nobel Committee found a way to associate the $1.5 million award with the uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East without citing them alone, which would have been problematic.

Prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said it was difficult to identify the leaders of the Arab Spring among the scores of activists who have spearheaded protests using social media.

He called the oppression of women “the most important issue in the Arab World” and stressed that the empowerment of women must go hand in hand with Islam.

No woman or sub-Saharan African had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor women to fight deforestation by planting trees. She died last month at 71.

Sirleaf, 72, became Africa’s first democratically elected female president after winning a 2005 election in Liberia, a country created to settle freed American slaves in 1847.

Fighting began in 1989, when Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia rebel group launched an armed uprising. The conflict had a momentary lull when Taylor ran for office in 1997 and was elected president.

In elections in 1997, Sirleaf had run second to Taylor, who many claimed was voted into power by a fearful electorate. Though she lost by a landslide, she rose to national prominence and earned the nickname, “Iron Lady.”

Liberia finally emerged from its civil strife in 2003, with Taylor’s ouster.

Sirleaf was seen as a reformer and peacemaker in Liberia when she took office. She is running for re-election on Tuesday and opponents have accused her of buying votes and using government funds to campaign. Her camp denies the charges.

“This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation,” Sirleaf said Friday from her home in Monrovia. “Liberians should be proud.”

African and international luminaries welcomed the news. Many had gathered in Cape Town, South Africa on Friday to celebrate Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday.

“Who? Johnson Sirleaf? The president of Liberia? Oooh,” said Tutu, who won the peace prize in 1984 for his nonviolent campaign against White racist rule in South Africa. “She deserves it many times over. She’s brought stability to a place that was going to hell.”

U2 frontman Bono—who has figured in peace prize speculation in previous years—called Sirleaf an “extraordinary woman, a force of nature and now she has the world recognize her in this great, great, great way.”

Gbowee, 32, has long campaigned for the rights of women and against rape, organizing Christian and Muslim women to challenge Liberia’s warlords. In 2003, she led hundreds of female protesters through Monrovia to demand swift disarmament of fighters who preyed on women during her country’s near-constant civil war.

She was honored by the committee for mobilizing women “across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections.”

Gbowee works in Ghana’s capital as the director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa. The group’s website says she is a mother of five.

“I know Leymah to be a warrior daring to enter where others would not dare,” said Gbowee’s assistant, Bertha Amanor. “So fair and straight, and a very nice person.”

Karman is a mother of three from Taiz, a city in southern Yemen that is a hotbed of resistance against Saleh’s regime. She now lives in the capital, Sanaa. She is a journalist and member of the Islamic party Islah and heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains. Her father is a former legal affairs minister under Saleh.

“I am very very happy about this prize,” Karman told AP. “I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people.”

Karman has been dubbed “Iron Woman, “The Mother of Revolution” and “The Spirit of the Yemeni Revolution” by fellow protesters.

During a February rally in Sanaa, she told the AP: “We will retain the dignity of the people and their rights by bringing down the regime.”

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