This week, the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace was conferred on two women who changed the world around them for the better without ever having the benefit of a title. They both grew up in very modest circumstances in societies that don’t traditionally allow women to have important titles or positions of power. They didn’t let that stop them. They decided to start working for positive change around them, one person at a time. They both ended up changing the course of history.
The first, 39-year-old Leymah Gbowee, spent most of her early life as a refugee fleeing the warring factions of Liberia’s civil wars. Surrounded by so much suffering and violence and motivated by her strong faith, she sought training in the treatment of victims of trauma and began to minister to those around her. Eventually, she realized that if any change was to be made in the culture of violence in Liberia and in Africa, “it had to be made by the mothers.” Herself a mother four, she formed a regional network of women and mothers who opposed factional violence and helped its victims. “No one else in Africa was doing this,” she said, “focusing on women and on building peace.”
Her network grew into a national movement for peace and democracy. It started with gatherings of women who convened in marketplaces to pray and sing for peace. It ended with a truce in Liberia’s civil war and the democratic election of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who is also sharing the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize this week).
The second, Tawakel Karman, is a 32-year-old journalist and mother of three from Yemen. Although she always held strong views about freedom and human rights, she has been prohibited by the culture and tradition of Yemen from holding any positions of power because she is a woman. She never let that discourage her. She formed a group of women journalists to fight for human rights in Yemen and even started her own newspaper and radio station to promote the cause.
In the last couple of years, she helped lead protests in Yemen against government corruption and injustice. This year, she helped organize student rallies that turned into mass protests that eventually resulted in democratic reforms in Yemen. Throughout, she has maintained her independence from political factions and worked without the benefit, or constraints, of an official title. “My positions are determined by my beliefs, and I do not ask anyone’s permission,” she says.
Rather than focus on the things that they were prohibited from doing or unable to do, these women acted with purpose, accomplishing the things they were able to do, piece by piece, bit by bit, creating a legacy of accomplishment that can stand against that of any titled leader anywhere. They did so without the benefit of titles or privileges themselves.
And now, they do have a title, one that they share: 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.