By Katy Snyder, JVA Consulting
In war, women suffer disproportionately. Tasked with protecting themselves and often their children, they are also far more commonly the victims of weapons of war such as rape and displacement. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, women are often the strongest forces for peace, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, which have been ravaged by the aftereffects of colonialism, border, religious and ethnic disputes, and civil war. Two prime examples are Yemen and Liberia.
The recent uprisings in Yemen, spurred on by protests in Tunisia and other “Arab Spring” protests, have killed hundreds and injured thousands more. Despite the fact that women by and large remain covered and the country is governed by Sharia law, many have turned out to protest the government. Even more women were drawn to the cause when President Saleh (who has refused to give up power despite popular unrest and who recently returned from hiding to Yemen) gave a speech in April in which he attempted to shame female protesters by saying that women who were protesting against his regime were “violating Yemeni cultural norms that prohibit women mixing with men who are not direct relatives. He called it forbidden behavior in Islam and advised women to stay home.”
In Liberia, the brutal reign of former president Charles Taylor and rebel movements to overthrow him took a particularly hard toll on women. One survey reported that three out of four women in parts of Liberia had fallen victim to rape, and the majority of these victims were less than 12 years old. Charles Taylor was finally forced from power in 2003, in no small part due to the “women in white” who held peaceful sit-ins in Monrovia and blocked the exits of peace talks to end the civil war, effectively forcing the two sides to come to an agreement. These women also inspired a documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which chronicles the women’s non-violent struggle and inclusion of women from varying religious groups in the peace process. Although the legacy of rape and violence against women remains, Liberian women have renewed hope: In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president in what have been called the most free, fair, and peaceful elections in Liberia’s history, making her the first democratically-elected female president in the whole of Africa.
These two countries just happen to have produced this year’s three Nobel Peace Prize winners: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and activist Leymah Gbowee, both of Liberia, and rights activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. Johnson Sirleaf has done much to dismantle the mindset and power structures that have allowed women to be raped, including creating a ministry of gender and making gang rape illegal. Gbowee was the leader of the “women in white” movement described above, and Karman has been instrumental in the revolution of Yemen, advocating for women’s rights and non-violence.
Despite their success, there is much more to be done. A group of women (many who brought their children with to the protest) marching in protest of the Yemeni government and in celebration of Karman’s Nobel Prize were attacked by pro-government groups in Yemen just yesterday, according to a CNN report. And Liberia’s rates of rape remain high, even as women gain ground in education and jobs.
The sentiment that there is still work to be done may have been summed up best by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee itself, which stated that, “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.”
For those of us who do have equal opportunity, it is our job to make sure both the plight and successes of women worldwide are known. One easy way to start: Go to the Facebook page of Women for Women International and “Like” its coverage of the Noble Prize winners and the support it gives to women in war-torn regions across the world.