Nobel Peace Prize Goes to Women's Activists Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, who have fought tirelessly to organize women for human rights, shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia and the only elected female head of state in Africa. She is running for reelection to a second term on October 11, against 15 other candidates. A Harvard-educated economist, Sirleaf is praised for the growth she has achieved after Liberia's devastating 14-year civil war, and is expected to win a second term.

Leymah Gbowee is an African peace activist who was a key figure in organizing the movement to bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War. In 2002 Gbowee began the peace movement by organizing women to pray for peace through non-violent protest and prayers.

Tawakul Karman is a Yemeni journalist and human rights activist, who works for the release of political prisoners in her home country, organizing demonstrations and sit-ins. One of the loudest voices in the Yemeni protests, she has received death threats and has became a major figurehead of the ongoing Arab Spring opposition. A 32 year-old mother of three, she is one of the youngest people to receive the prize.

The women were awarded the prize for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."

The announcement of the three women as shared recipients of this year's prize came as a surprise, as a number of well-known contenders were rumored to be the winners, including Bradley Manning, Mark Zuckerberg and even President Obama for a second time.

According to insiders, the frontrunners for the Peace prize this year included Israa Abdel Fattah, cofounder of April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, and Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim.

Other names that were in the mix were Afghan human rights campaigner Sima Samar, Burmese opposition leader and previous winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and ex-German chancellor (and perennial nominee) Helmut Kohl.

Organizations can also be awarded the prize, and the Russian civil rights group Memorial, and the European Union, were believed to be in the running this year.

Nominations are made by an array of international academics, lawyers, previous winners, the Nobel Committee and others. They are not made public, although some are leaked by those who put their names forward.

A winner is chosen by a committee appointed by the Norwegian parliament, and the prize awarded in a ceremony in Oslo, which this year takes place on Dec. 10.

Incredibly, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini have all been nominated for the peace prize. Hitler was put forward in 1939 by a member of the Swedish parliament. Wisely, he later withdrew his choice. Stalin was nominated in 1945 for his efforts to end World War II. Mahatma Gandhi was nominated five times but never won the award.

Which begs the question: what exactly are the criteria for a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate?

The will of Alfred Nobel states that it should be awarded to the "person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Inevitably, the Nobel Peace Prize attracts controversy. The most heavily criticized was in 1973 when the award was given to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for their contribution to the peace negotiations in Vietnam.

Eyebrows were raised when President Obama was awarded the prize in 2009, less than a year after his election.

Last year's choice of Chinese dissident Liu Xiobo caused a diplomatic storm. Liu is still imprisoned in China on political charges.

Scholars believe that Alfred Nobel founded the annual awards in part to ease his own conscience. Most of his fortune came from the production of explosives for civil uses, but his inventions also led to advances in the military sector.

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