Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2012 Volume 33 Issue 1
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme. She was one of seven eminent persons who investigated the genocide in Rwanda on behalf of the Organization of African Unity. In 2005 she became the first democratically elected female head of state on the African continent. She has been President of Liberia since January 2006.
In its selection this year, the Nobel Committee has brought here three women linked by their commitment to change, and by their efforts to promote the rule of law and democracy in societies riven by conflict. The fact that we—two women from Liberia—are here today to share the stage with a sister from Yemen speaks to the universality of our struggle.
As Leymah and Tawakkol know, this award belongs to the people whose aspirations we have the privilege to represent, and whose rights we have the obligation to defend. We are but their reflection.
Tawakkol, you are an inspirational activist for peace and women’s rights. In your country, autocratic rule prevails; but where they had no voice, you found a way to be heard.
Leymah, you are a peacemaker. You had the courage to mobilize the women of Liberia to take back their country. You redefined the “front line” of a brutal civil conflict—women dressed in white, demonstrating in the streets—a barrier no warlord was brave enough to cross.
There is no doubt that the madness that wrought untold destruction in recent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Rwanda, in Sierra Leone, in Sudan, in Somalia, in the former Yugoslavia, and in my own Liberia, found its expression in unprecedented levels of cruelty directed against women.
Although international tribunals have correctly declared that rape, used as a weapon of war, is a crime against humanity, rapes in times of lawlessness continue unabated. The number of our sisters and daughters of all ages brutally defiled over the past two decades staggers the imagination, and the number of lives devastated by such evil defies comprehension.
Through the mutilation of our bodies and the destruction of our ambitions, women and girls have disproportionately paid the price of domestic and international armed conflict. We have paid in the currencies of blood, of tears, and of dignity.
However, the need to defend the rights of women is not limited to the battlefield, and the threats to those rights do not emanate only from armed violence. Girls’ education, seen far too often as an unnecessary indulgence rather than the key investment it is, is still under-funded and under-staffed. Too often girls are discouraged from pursuing an academic training, no matter how promising they may be.
As we celebrate today, we are mindful of the enormous challenges we still face. In too many parts of the world, crimes against women are still under-reported, and the laws protecting women are under-enforced. In this 21st century, surely there is no place for human trafficking that victimizes almost a million people, mostly girls and women, each year. Surely there is no place for girls and women to be beaten and abused. Surely there is no place for a continuing belief that leadership qualities belong to only one gender.
Yet, there is occasion for optimism and hope. There are good signs of progress and change. Around the world, slowly, international law and an awareness of human rights are illuminating dark corners, in schools, in courts, in the marketplace. The windows of closed chambers where men and women have been unspeakably abused are being opened, and the light is coming in. Democracies, even if tentatively, are taking root in lands unaccustomed to freedom.
As curtains are raised and as the sun shines upon dark places, what was previously invisible comes into view. Technology has turned our world into one interconnected neighborhood. What happens in one place is seen in every corner, and there has been no better time for the spread of peace, democracy and their attending social justice and fairness for all.
So I urge my sisters, and my brothers, not to be afraid. Be not afraid to denounce injustice, though you may be outnumbered. Be not afraid to seek peace, even if your voice may be small. Be not afraid to demand peace.
If I might thus speak to girls and women everywhere, I would issue them this simple invitation: My sisters, my daughters, my friends, find your voices!
Each of us has her own voice, and the differences among us are to be celebrated. But our goals are in harmony. They are the pursuit of peace, the pursuit of justice. They are the defence of rights to which all people are entitled.
The political struggles that our countries—Liberia, Yemen, and others—have gone through will be meaningful only if the newfound freedom opens new opportunities for all. We are well aware that a new order, born of hunger for change, can easily fall back into the lawless ways of the past. We need our voices to be heard. Find your voice! And raise your voice! Let yours be a voice for freedom!
© The Nobel Foundation 2011