Wangari is Smiling

Levi Strauss & Co.
November 16, 2011

“It is the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s hope that the Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (above, left), Leymah Gbowee (above, right) and Tawakkul Karman will help to 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.”

These words, shared this year by the Nobel Committee, make me beam with pride, not only because Leymah, a Liberian social worker, and Tawakkul, a Yemeni journalist and activist, have been grantees of my organization, the Global Fund for Women, but also because the Nobel Committee recognition strongly affirms that investing in women and girls can result in more peaceful and just societies.

The Levi Strauss Foundation has been a strong supporter of the Global Fund for Women for more than a decade, helping us strengthen grassroots women’s rights organizations in Asia and Latin America.

That the award came after the recent death of the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai, is a sign that this award was meant to be. It’s also a symbol of a passing torch – pioneers like Wangari, a political activist from Kenya, laid a foundation for these three laureates to build their future.

Leymah’s organization, Women, Peace and Security Network Africa, mobilized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to end the long war in Liberia. How? Knowing their work wouldn’t end with the war, they also campaigned to ensure women’s equal participation in elections and have influence after the war. Their successful strategies paved the way for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the third Prize recipient, to run and win the presidency.

Around the same time in Yemen, Tawakkul established Women Journalists Without Chains in 2006. She recognized the important role of the media in defending and raising awareness of women’s rights. Five years later, Tawakkul is using her multi-media savvy to organize and lead protests that could one day topple a regime.

Nobel Committee members said, “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.”

The change we all hope for won’t happen overnight. However, for the skeptics—who need tangible, measurable evidence of women’s power, influence and expertise in action—these three women are a shining example of what we can achieve together.

Somewhere, Wangari is smiling.

Editor’s note: Leymah Gboyee was interviewed this week on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Watch the interview here.

Main Image ©Lyn Hughes