(CNN) — Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, activist Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and rights activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen share this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Friday.
They were chosen “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” the committee said in Oslo, Norway.
“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.”
In an interview with CNN, Karman — the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the youngest recipients — said she heard the news while demonstrating in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
“Congratulations to all the Yemeni people. I am so happy for the award. I believe this award is for all Yemenis, for all the Yemeni people, and for all Arab women,” she said.
“This is a victory for peace in the Arab world, a victory for the peaceful revolution in Yemen.”
Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s 72-year-old president and Africa’s first elected female head of state, told CNN she was excited about the prize, which she said was shared by all her country’s people.
“I’m accepting this on behalf of the Liberian people, so credit goes to them,” she said. “For the past eight years, we have had peace and each and every one of them has contributed to this peace.”
She said the peace that had ended 14 years of civil war should be attributed to the country’s women.
They were “women from all walks of life who challenged the dictatorship of former President Charles Taylor and who stayed out in the sun and the rain working for peace in our country,” she said.
Johnson Sirleaf, whose political resilience and tough reputation have earned her the nickname “Iron Lady,” is campaigning for re-election.
The Harvard graduate’s commencement address in high school in 1972 sharply criticized the government, a rare defiance in Africa, especially at the time. She has also worked at the World Bank and the United Nations.
Her historic 2006 election win was a major milestone for Africa, a continent dominated by male dictators who are referred to as strongmen. The mother of four sons published a book, “This Child Will Be Great” in 2008.
Liberian Information Minister Cletus Sieh told CNN that Johnson Sirleaf is a role model for many women in Africa.
Gbowee, a founder and executive director of Women Peace and Security Network-Africa, was also a recipient in 2009 of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
She was the focus of the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which shows how women confronted Taylor with a demand for peace to end the bloody 14-year civil war.
She “mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia,” the Nobel committee said, adding she also encouraged women’s participation in elections.
“She has since worked to enhance the influence of women in West Africa during and after war,” it said.
Jan Egeland of Human Rights Watch told CNN the Nobel committee had come up with a great prize that merged the efforts of Liberian women in achieving “momentous change” in their country with the vital role of women in the ongoing Arab Spring movement.
Rights group Amnesty International said the award would encourage women everywhere to continue fighting for their rights. Click here to read more