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Profiles of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureates

OSLO: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “peace warrior” Leymah Gbowee also of Liberia and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman were due to receive Saturday the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Here are bios of the three laureates:

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAFAfrica’s “Iron Lady” is a champion for women’s rights whose steely nerves have been tested at the helm of a deeply divided post-war Liberia.

When she first became head of state of Liberia in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, now 73, had taken on board a nation traumatized by 14 years of brutal civil war with no electricity, running water or infrastructure.

Sirleaf has attracted investment of more than $16 billion in the mining, agriculture and forestry sectors, and offshore oil exploration, and has won more than $4 billion in debt relief.

But attitudes cooled to Sirleaf at home when a 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission named her on a list of people who should not hold public office for 30 years for backing warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor.

Sirleaf has admitted to initially backing Taylor’s insurgency against dictator Samuel Doe’s government in 1989 which led to the country’s first civil war, but became a fierce opponent as the true extent of his war crimes became apparent.

Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in October, she won a second term in office in disputed presidential elections marred by violence and an opposition boycott.

A Harvard-trained economist, Sirleaf served as finance minister under presidents William Tolbert then William Tubman, before spending decades shuttling in and out of exile. She has also worked for the World Bank.

Sirleaf was married at age 17 and later divorced after the relationship turned abusive. She has four sons and 11 grandchildren.

LEYMAH GBOWEELiberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee is best known for leading women to defy feared warlords and pushing men toward peace during one of Africa’s bloodiest wars.

She led a group of Christian and Muslim women who would gather in Monrovia to pray for peace and protest against the war in white shirts, launching a sex strike in 2002 as women refused to have sex with their husbands until the violence and civil strife ended.

In 2003, under Gbowee’s leadership, the group managed to force a meeting with Charles Taylor, getting him to promise he would attend peace talks in Ghana.

Some two weeks later, the terms of the Accra peace treaty were announced.

A social worker by profession, Gbowee, 39, has worked as a trauma counselor and with former child soldiers from Taylor’s army.

She is the founder and executive director for Women, Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-A) based in Ghana. She has, however, relocated to Monrovia to head up a peace and reconciliation initiative in her country.

Sirleaf named her to head up the project after winning an election which was marred by violence, pointing to deep divisions which still remain in the country eight years after the end of the war.

Gbowee is the mother of six children.

TAWAKKUL KARMANTawakkul Karman, a 32-year-old Yemeni activist and journalist who has fallen foul of the authorities in her struggle for rights, is the first Arab woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

A mother of three, Karman spent months camped out at Change Square, the hub of protest in Sanaa, and became a leading figure in the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Her Nobel glory was hailed by activists and protesters when it was announced in October, but ignored by Yemen’s state media. Since then, she has pressed on with her struggle to see Saleh brought to international justice.

The veteran leader signed a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal on Nov. 23, under which he handed over “necessary” constitutional power to his vice president in return for immunity from prosecution.

But days later, Karman went to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to demand Saleh be tried for crimes against humanity.

Since winning the Nobel, Karman has not returned to Change Square and barely spends time in her home country.

She has traveled to New York where she was received by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and has met with French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppe in Paris.

Now well-known internationally, she frequently appears on the Doha-based Al-Jazeera news channel to offer her views on the situation in Yemen.

A journalist by profession, Karman was born in Mikhlaf village, outside Taiz, the second largest city in Yemen and another hotspot in the uprising against Saleh.

She wears the Islamic headscarf, having abandoned the traditional face veil of women in her impoverished Muslim country, and has for years pressed demands for women’s rights, freedom of expression and for a free press in Yemen.

In 2005, Karman founded a group called “Women Journalists without Chains.”  

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 10, 2011, on page 10.
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