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Two African women won Nobel Peace Prizes, but the continent still has a long way to go on gender equality

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  October 18, 2011 01:45 PM

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Less than a year ago, women helped lead the reform movements that swept across Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. But now that those uprisings have succeeded, and the world’s attention has shifted elsewhere, women are once again being shoved aside.

In that context, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month to three women activists, including two Africans, shouldn’t leave the impression that gender equality has arrived in Africa. If anything, the award should re-focus the world’s attention on how too many African countries continue to marginalize women — and how much they are hurting themselves in the process.

The women recognized by the prize — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — have all made meaningful contributions to the homelands, Karman as a leading opposition figure and Sirleaf as the continent’s first democratically elected female president.

Gbowee, who helped end a long-running war in Liberia by organizing both Christian and Muslim women behind a peace movement, provides an especially inspiring example. The group she organized met to pray together at a fish market, and, memorably, threatened a sex strike on partners who were part of the warring sides. By staging additional protests in front of the Presidential Palace in Ghana, the venue of the peace talks in 2003, Gbowee and the group of women were able to bring the fourteen-year war to an end.

I met Gbowee at a conference in San Diego in 2008, where she presented the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. At the end, I walked up to Gbowee and told her the documentary should be screened across Africa so that women would watch it and learn from it.

In times of conflict, African women are too often portrayed solely as victims, as though they have no power to bring the warring parties to the table. The success of Gbowee’s efforts is powerful proof to the contrary.

As North African countries put together their new governments following popular uprisings, hopefully the Nobel Prize will cause them to reconsider the widespread exclusion of women from the higher levels of government. The prizewinners show that when women are able to exercise political power, the whole country benefits.

Jackee Budesta Batanda is the 2011-2012 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer fellow at the Centre for International Studies at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @jackeebatanda.

Reuters/Luc Gnago: 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee of Liberia.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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