The Nobel Peace Prize yesterday went to women who courageously challenged male hierarchies in long-suffering countries. Where did they get the strength to do it? In part, from encouragement they received in Massachusetts. Two of the three winners, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, came to Harvard’s Kennedy School as part of the Women Waging Peace Network, spearheaded by former US Ambassador Swanee Hunt, whose foundation provided intensive support. Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr. and Senator Edward Kennedy were also instrumental in setting up the network. The women went on to bring peace and democracy to war-torn Liberia, helping it move beyond the murderous regime of accused war criminal Charles Taylor.
Sirleaf was elected president in 2005, providing a new model of hope for the African continent. Gbowee, for her part, had the honor of accepting the 2009 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award at the JFK Library in Boston. She represented all the women of Liberia who took control of their nation’s future. The women’s accomplishments are extraordinary, but so too was the support they received. Liberia can be a model for Africa, but also for how people thousands of miles away can help promote human rights.