Three women made history last week by being awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their peaceful activism in promoting gender equality.
To get some perspective on the importance of the prize awarded to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkol Karman, we spoke with Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA, a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty.
Gayle, who has worked with President Sirleaf in bringing CARE to Liberia, says empowering women leaders is an important step in transforming societies for the better, but there is still plenty of work to be done. An edited version of the interview follows.
More: Tell us about your relationship with President Sirleaf.
Helene Gayle: I had the opportunity to meet with her on three or four occasions. CARE had been in Liberia for many years, but during the civil war we had left that country. Given the history that CARE had in Liberia, and with her coming on as president, she reached out to me and asked if CARE could in fact come back, and we’ve been back since 2008, providing assistance in areas of high-priority need for Liberia like food, income security, women’s economic empowerment, agriculture and access to clean water. Those are the areas that we have been working with, and they very much line up with our priorities for her administration.
More: What was your reaction when you heard the prize would be split among three female activists?
HG: I thought it was a really important sign, and I think [the Nobel committee sent] a message that unless women are really seen and really equal partners in solving the main problems in the world, working on peace and security, that without having full participation of women, we aren't going to achieve democracy and lasting peace.
I think it was the Nobel committee chairman himself who said we can’t expect to achieve democracy and lasting peace unless women obtain the same opportunities as their male counterparts [and are able to] influence development at all levels within a society. I think that statement kind of sums it up, that this is a tangible way of saying to the world that this committee believes that without recognizing the leadership that women provide, and really working for full participation of women within societies, we’re not going to have the kind of world that we want to have.
More: Considering the violent attacks against women demonstrators in Yemen this week, it seems there is still a long battle for global gender equality in front of women.
HG: I think there’s still a long road ahead, and we’ve seen that with any [change], whether you look back at civil rights or the fight for women’s rights and suffrage in this country or whatever the issue has been. There’s always been some backlash. But once the wheels of progress begin, I think it’s impossible to turn them back. There will still be reactions to the increasing engagement of women in societies, but, ultimately, I think this prize and the movements we’re seeing around the world that are inclusive of women and really look at empowering women are key to progress. I think those are the things that will continue to move our society forward.
More: So, there’s hope for real change.
HG: For [CARE] as an organization, we have put empowering girls and women as the focus of our work because we really believe that if you want to have long-lasting change in ending poverty, empowering girls and women is the best way to bring long-lasting change not only for themselves, but for their communities, their families and for their nations. And so, in many ways, the honoring of these three women is very much parallel to what we as an organization believe is going to be our best bet for having long-lasting change toward ending global poverty.