It started over tea.
Nobel Peace Prize winners Jody Williams from the U.S., Shirin Ebadi from Iran, and the late Wangari Maathai from Kenya were all in Nairobi and decided to meet. As they talked about their respective work–Williams in banning land mines, Ebadi in defending women and children, and Maathai in the environment and building democratic movements–they found they had a shared passion for advancing the causes of peace and women’s rights.
What could they do if they worked together, using the power and prestige of the Nobel Prize, they wondered.
The result was the Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI), founded in 2006. Founding laureates include Williams, Ebadi, and Maathai, as well as Rigoberta Menchú Tum from Guatemala, and Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire, both from Northern Ireland, each pledging money from the prize she received. Other member laureates include Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. Together, they are nine of just 16 women who have received the prize during its 110-year history, and represent nearly every continent.
The organization, with its small staff of five employees, uses the power and influence of Nobel laureates to help grassroots organizations, activists, and others gain attention and access to organizations and authorities who can help further their causes. It currently works with organizations and activists in areas related to sexual violence, climate change, peace in Sudan, Israel, and Palestine, and human-rights protections in Burma, Central America, and Iran.
The need is great, and the organization has to be thoughtful in making selections in its causes, says founding director Liz Bernstein, who previously worked on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, for which she was awarded the prize with Williams in 1997. She says they are careful in selecting the groups with which they work, and saying no is part of being effective.
“There are a lot of things that we just don’t see as our area of expertise,” she says.
A good example of NWI in action is the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict. Launched in 2012 by NWI and an advisory committee representing 25 global, regional, and local rape-prevention agencies, the high-profile effort attracted nearly 5,000 members from 700 organizations. They called upon political leaders to prevent rape in conflict, protect civilians and survivors, and prosecute perpetrators.
The initiative was instrumental in achieving the United Nations Declaration to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which was signed by more than 140 U.N. member states. It calls for the participation of women in all peace negotiations and exclusion of amnesty for crimes of sexual violence in all peace deals, among other protections. In addition, the campaign helped lead to the G8 Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, in which foreign ministers of the world’s eight wealthiest nations agreed to strengthen conflict-related rape prevention, response, and investigation, and agreed to an initial pledge of nearly $36 million in funding.
That sort of rallying power and influence is invaluable to activists like Cristina Hardaga Fernández, who first worked with the NWI in 2010, when she was part of a grassroots human-rights organization called Tlachinollan Centro de Derechos Humanos de La Montaña in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. At that time, the organization was working with Valentina Rosendo Cantu, a woman who was tortured and raped by members of the military in 2002 when she was 17. Later, when NWI became involved, Fernández says it gave their efforts more political and other support, and lets governments know that people with influence are watching, she says.
“They were a shield for us, and in contexts like Guerrero, you want that kind of shield, you need that to continue the work in the promotion and defense of human rights,” she says. “For the government, knowing that NWI is ‘watching’ has its message. It’s a political statement. It’s an ‘alarm,’ but it must be that there are organizations and women at the NWI who care about what is happening. For countries like Mexico, where the government works so hard to have a human-rights appearance, what other international organizations say is important to them.”
Cantu won her case in 2010. Fernández now works as strategic and political engagement coordinator with Just Associates in Mexico City, an organization that advocates for women’s rights that was also instrumental in Cantu’s fight.
In another example, Williams visited a community in Mexico where people had been displaced in favor of a new airport. During the subsequent demonstrations during which people demanded their land back or reparations, a number of citizens were arrested, Bernstein says. She was able to help arrange a meeting with government officials.
“Jody was able to go with them and meet with officials, then hand over the floor to the village women who hadn’t met their representatives before in their lives. Then, in subsequent days there was change, men were released from prison, and there was some discussion in terms of leading a process towards their reparation process for the villages,” she says.
But even with their considerable achievements and influence, Bernstein says that NWI isn’t immune to the marginalization that women face. Bernstein says it’s still easier to get publicity and access when men are leading the way. But that just makes her team more determined to stick to their mission until things change.
“Jody often says it gives the Nobel Prize meaning that she can share it with women and women’s organizations around the world. Really wanting to focus on working with women’s organizations and women’s movements that have strategies themselves, and where our help amplifying their voices can advance some of their campaigns and decision-making moments,” she says.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misstated the number of women who have won the Nobel Prize. The accurate number is now reflected in the article.