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Mujeres y el Premio Nobel de la Paz

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Foto: Daniel Diusabá

Con motivo de la exposición Mujeres Nobel en el Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Ingvill Bryn Rambøl, directora de Comunicación del Nobel Peace Center en Oslo, ofreció una presentación el 1 de marzo en el Ayuntamiento de Madrid sobre Mujeres y el Premio Nobel de la Paz. Puede leer la presentación de Ingvill Bryn Rambøl a continuación.

La exposición Mujeres Nobel se podrá visitar hasta el 3 de junio de 2018. Está centrada en 12 mujeres que recibieron el galardón. Entre ellas se encuentra la noruega May-Britt Moser, que ganó el Premio de Fisiología o Medicina en 2014.

 

Women and the Nobel Peace Prize

Norway enjoys the world’s focus only on very special occasions. One of them is when the Nobel Peace Prize is being awarded in December every year.

Why is the Peace Prize awarded in Norway? We often get that question from visitors to the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. And we don’t really have a good answer. All we know, is that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who died as one of Europe’s richest bachelors in 1896, left a testament stating that his fortune should be used to award prizes to “those who had done the most to the benefit of mankind”. Alfred Nobel wrote in his testament that he wanted his money to be divided between five different prize categories: chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, and peace. The first four was to be awarded by committees in Sweden, the one for peace by a Norwegian committee, appointed by the Norwegian Parliament.

At the time, Sweden and Norway were in a union under the same king. Norway was known as a neutral country and the Norwegian Parliament was renowned for its efforts in peaceful solutions to international conflicts in the 1890’s, which might be a reason why Nobel saw the Norwegians as suitable in awarding a peace prize. It has also been suggested that Nobel’s admiration for the Norwegian author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson could have been an inspiration. However, we do not know. One thing he did say was that he wanted the Nobel Prize to be international:

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not. “Why Norway?” is one of the mysteries surrounding Alfred Nobel’s will. “Why Peace?” is another one. He was a scientist and the inventor of dynamite. Some people suggest he was feeling bad about the dynamite he invented being used in weapons production. However, another explanation could actually be a woman.

Bertha von Suttner was a Czech countess, but her family was not rich and at thirty, she took a position as house teacher for the Suttner family in Vienna. When she and the oldest son of the family, Arthur, who was seven years her junior, fell in love, the Suttner family urged her to find another position. She then responded to a newspaper advertisement from “a very wealthy, cultured, elderly gentleman, living in Paris, who desired to find a lady also of “mature years”, familiar with languages, as secretary and manger of his household”. This “elderly” gentleman was Alfred Nobel. He was 42 at the time. Bertha got the position, and they got along very well, however she only stayed for 8 days. While Alfred was away on travel, Bertha got a letter from Arthur, where he claimed that he could not live without her. She decided to run away with him, and in spite of the opposition from the Suttner family, they got married in secret. Nevertheless, her friendship with Alfred Nobel lasted, and they wrote several letters to each other. Bertha von Suttner became an author and a peace activist, and her book Lay Down Your Arms was one of the most influential books in the 19th century. Bertha von Suttner became a leading figure in the peace movement in Europe in the pre-war years. She played a prominent part in the Anglo-German Friendship Committee formed at the 1905 Peace Congress, and she repeatedly stated that “Europe is one”, and that uniting Europe was the only way to prevent a war. We know that the work Bertha was doing for peace was very inspiring to Alfred Nobel, although the inventor of dynamite and the “angel of peace” did not always agree on things. In one of his letters to her, he wrote:

Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your peace congresses. On the day when two armies will be able to annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops on knowing that total devastation will be in store for them if they engage themselves in war.

There were other women in Alfred Nobel’s life, too. But not many. His mother meant a lot to him, and he had a romantic affair with a woman called Sofie Hess. Unfortunately, she got tired of waiting for Alfred to propose, and went off to marry someone else. The fact that Nobel never got married and had children probably explains why he decided to leave all his fortune to the Nobel Prizes.

We see that women did play an important role in the beginning of the Nobel history. But what happened since?

The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901. It was divided between two people, they were both men and they both had moustaches, something that seemed to set an example for many years to come. For the first 75 years, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to 60 individuals, (the number is not 75 because sometimes the prize is divided, sometimes it is given to an organisation, and some years the prize has not been given out at all.) Among these 60 laureates, there are three women, or five per cent of the laureates.  

One of them is Bertha von Suttner. She was nominated every year from 1901, and when she received the prize in 1905, she became the first female Peace Prize laureate. In addition, she was the only woman in the period before 1975 to receive the prize on her own. The other two, Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch, shared it with a man.

In 1975, the Nobel Peace Prize to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan from Northern Ireland, did not only make the statistics look better. It was the first time the Nobel Peace Prize was given to someone without long experience in peace movements or organizational life.

Betty Williams was a housewife in Belfast. A day in August 1976 something happened in her neighbourhood. A car came rushing down the street, inside the car was a man who belonged to the IRA. He was being followed by armed men. A gunshot was heard, and the car continued with the badly injured driver hanging over the wheel. The car hit a mother and her three children. The mother survived, but the three children died. One of the neighbours who rushed to the scene was Betty Williams. Mairead Corrigan was the children’s aunt. Together, the two women built up a grassroots movement to end the violence in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. They arranged marches and peace meetings, and encouraged peace groups to be formed all over Northern Ireland. By 1977, there were around 60 peace groups, performing local peace work, in the country. Afterwards, though, the movement lost its force and died out. 

Since 1975, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 13 women and 31 men. That is approximately 30 % women. This means that the Nobel Peace Prize has a far better track record when it comes to female representation than the other Nobel Prizes. When you look at all the Nobel Prizes as a total, the proportion of women is not more than 5 %, as 48 out of 892 Nobel laureates are women.

Between 1991 and 2014, the number of women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize equals the number from the 90 years before. This shift reflects not only changes in society, with women gaining political and economic access, but also the emphasis on the role of women in peacebuilding processes. It also means that other peace building efforts than mediating between parties or signing peace treaties, have been rewarded.

That is what happened in 2004 when Wangari Maathai from Kenya was awarded the prize. Her effort was to plant trees. With the Green Belt Movement, she planted more than 20 million trees between 1976 and 2000. This was the first Nobel Peace Prize to reward efforts for the environment. At the time, critics said: “What does planting trees have to do with peace?” In Kenya 90% of the woods had dried out and this lead to problems with crops, which again lead to starvation. However, it also affected democracy and peace. The Nobel Committee was ahead of its time in seeing Mathaai’s work in a global context.

Conflicts due to lack of resources and climate change will be a problem in the years to come, therefore fighting for the environment could be fighting for peace. Today, most people would agree with this position. Mathaai’s Green Belt Movement did not just lead to better soil, more food and less conflict; it also meant empowerment of women. This became a grassroots women's organization. Within a few years, the idea had spread, and tree-planting initiatives were started in other African countries as well. Wangari Maathai’s mantra was to act locally and think globally: “It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees”, she said.

In 2011, the number of female Peace Prize laureates jumped from 12 to 15 in just one prize as it was given to three women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman.

Social worker Leymah Gboweewas 17 years old when the civil war in Liberia broke out. Leymah Gbowee first worked with reintegrating and rehabilitating traumatised victims, including child soldiers. Eventually she became Liberia’s coordinator in the West African Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). Her work with WIPNET moulded Gbowee as a peace activist. Treating war traumas was not enough; the war had to be stopped.

In 2002, Gbowee lead the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Thousands of women from different religious and ethnic backgrounds gathered for daily demonstrations against President Charles Taylor. The women wore simple, white T-shirts as a symbol of peace. They did not relent even when Taylor banned the demonstrations and warned them against criticising the government. In this way, they helped push through the peace talks that lead to the signing of a peace deal in August 2003. Charles Taylor was forced into exile. 

After the peace agreement was signed, Gbowee’s network worked towards encouraging greater voter turnout by Liberian women. They offered, among other things, to babysit children and mind women’s stalls in the market square while they went to register to vote. A simple thing that made it possible for more women to participate in the election in 2005. After this election, Liberia gained Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In Liberia, women were part of the solution, through peaceful, quite simple actions. Women like Leymah Gbowee managed to make a huge difference.

With the Nobel Peace Prize being rewarded to Malala Yousafzai in 2014, the focus was not so much on her being a woman, rather on her being a child. She was only 17 when she received the prize, the youngest Nobel laureate ever. With Malala, girls all over the world got a new kind of role model. She was an ordinary school girl, and she proved to the whole world that if you believe in something, and if you are willing to stand up for it, you can actually make a difference in the world.

Malala is a role model children of our age can relate to, in a different way than to the bearded male Peace Prize laureates of the last century. They can look at her and say, “It could be me”.

If you can see it, you can be it, they say. If girls and boys growing up have role models looking like themselves, they are more inclined to dare to believe in their dreams. To believe that this could one day be them. This goes for Nobel laureates, as well as for politicians or business leaders.

In Norway we have a story we love to tell when we travel abroad. It is about a little boy who grew up in the 90’s, when Gro Harlem Brundtland was prime minister for two periods. This boy one day asked his mother, “Mum, can men become prime minister as well?” Men can become prime ministers, even in Norway. Moreover, women can become chair of Nobel Committees.

In 2016, for the first time in history, women chaired all five Nobel Committees in Sweden and Norway. A remarkable thing, and a sign that the world is changing. However, that year not a single woman was on the list of prize laureates in either category.

In 2017, there were no women on the list of laureates either, but in Oslo, two remarkable women came to receive the Nobel Peace Prize: the young leader of ICAN, the international campaign to ban the atomic bomb, and Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor from Hiroshima. 

Only 16 of the 104 individuals Nobel Peace Prize laureates have been women. Nevertheless, one thing I have noticed during the time I have worked at the Nobel Peace Center, is that most of these women are very active Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Because when women are a minority among men, they tend to seek together to have a stronger voice. Some of the female laureates, among them Shirin Ebadi, Leymah Gbowee, Jody Williams and Tawakkol Karman, have formed the Nobel Women’s Initiative, active in political matters all over the world. Last year they wrote a letter to the Norwegian government urging Norway to take on a leading role in environmental issues. They use their status as Nobel laureates to give their voices a stronger impact in issues they believe in. That, in itself, is a good reason for why we need more female Nobel laureates in the future. The world needs them.

I truly believe that we find some of the most important and most inspiring laureates among the women. Knowing that many of them come from countries where gender parity is still a distant dream, many of the female Nobel Peace Prize laureates have sacrificed and risked a lot to follow their ideals. The fact that they are few makes each and every one of them even more important. Therefore, the initiative that has been taken by the Science Museum in Madrid and the embassies of Sweden of Norway, in making an exhibition about female Nobel Prize winners is wonderful.

A world were women’s resources and efforts are fully recognized, is also a better and more peaceful world.

Presentation by Ingvill Bryn Rambøl, Director of Information at the Nobel Peace Center.