The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to three women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, for their work in advancing women's rights and the role of women in peacebuilding efforts.

The Nobel committee said Friday that the women — two Liberians and a Yemeni — were being recognized for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work."  

The committee said the world cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace "unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."

Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, was elected president of Liberia in 2005, making her Africa's first democratically elected female president.

"Since her inauguration in 2006, she has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women," said the committee.

The Liberian leader said Friday that the award gives her a "stronger commitment to work for reconciliation" in the war-torn West African nation. 

"Liberians should be proud," she said from her home in Monrovia.

The 72-year-old leader of the West African nation, which is working to maintain a fragile peace after a prolonged conflict, will face a test next week when Liberians head to the polls.

'Symbol of hope'

Gbowee, a renowned Liberian peace activist and women's rights advocate, said she hoped the award made a "loud statement" that the needs and priorities of women shouldn't be ignored.


Leymah Gbowee is known for her work on peacebuilding and truth and reconciliation in Liberia, as well as her efforts to advance women's rights across Africa. (Michael Angelo/Wonderland)

Gbowee, a trained social worker, was cited for her efforts in organizing women "across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women's participation in elections."

She was also commended for her advocacy efforts and her push to enhance the role of women across West Africa. 

Speaking from New York after the announcement, Gbowee said that she would have continued her work no matter what.

"My work is about survival for myself and for other women on the continent — it has nothing to do with awards," she said. "With or without a Nobel, I'll still do what I do, because I am a symbol of hope in my community, on the continent." 

Gbowee said she hoped the prize would help remind young women that "there's nothing in this world that you determine to do that you cannot do."

"Don't let tradition stop you, don't let socializiation stop you, step out there and be the best you can be," she said Friday.

The 39-year-old activist recently released a book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, which looks at the conflict in Liberia and how it shaped her goals and dreams.

The prize announcement came not long after the launch of her book, and Gbowee said she was looking forward to spending time with children, who range in age from two to 18.

Karman dedicates prize to Yemeni people

Karman, a 32-year-old activist and chair of Women Journalists Without Chains, has been working to promote human rights in Yemen for years. But when she was arrested in January, it helped kick off protests by hundreds of thousands demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the creation of a democratic government.

When the Nobel announcement was made Friday, Karman was where she has been nearly every day for the past eight months — in a protest tent in Change Square, the roundabout in central Sanaa that has been the symbolic epicentre of the revolt.

"This prize is not for Tawakkul," she told The Associated Press from her tent as she received congratulations from other activists. "It is for the whole Yemeni people, for the martyrs, for the cause of standing up to [Saleh] and his gangs. Every tyrant and dictator is upset by this prize because it confronts injustice."


The Nobel committee said Tawakkul Karman played 'a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.' (Reuters)

Her husband, Mohammed al-Nahmi, who was sitting with her in the tent, told AP, "This is a prize she deserves. Before she is my wife, she is a colleague, and a companion in the struggle."

Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, was quoted by the group on Twitter as saying "this year's prize sends a message to the Arab world about democracy [and] women's rights."

The committee said it hoped that the 2011 peace prize winners would "help bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and to realize the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised the winners and said the prize highlights the "vital role" women play in advancing peace, security, development and human rights.

The 2010 peace prize went to Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, who is still serving an 11-year sentence in China for subversion.  

U.S. President Barack Obama was the surprise winner in 2009.

The peace prize has been awarded 98 times to individuals and 23 times to organizations since 1901, according to the group. The youngest peace laureate was Mairead Corrigan, 32, and the oldest 87-year-old Joseph Rotblat.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has received the peace prize three times, in 1917,1944, and 1963.

With files from The Associated Press