Peace Prize Winner Gbowee: Occupy Wall Street Needs 'A Focused Agenda'

Want to know what Nobel Peace Prize Leymah Gbowee sees as the biggest problem facing women today? This morning, I got to ask her.

Gbowee was in New York today, and I caught up with her by phone to ask about her thoughts on the prize, its implications, and her next steps. She told me that the decision to award the Peace Prize to her, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkol Karman would create "a larger platform for people to listen — and not just listen, but listen with interest and a desire to change." She added that the prize was "an acknowledgment of the roles that women have played over time" in the world, and of women's "unique skills" and "willingness" to work." She explained that it's become "a given" that women will take part in social change around the world.

In response to criticisms that awarding this year's prize to three women represented cynical tokenism on the part of the prize committee, Gbowee said, "tokenism [...] is something where you give to a group of people who have not done anything." But all over the world, she said, women have been working tirelessly for peace and social justice — the prize is a recognition of their very real efforts. Gbowee's own work included a 2002 antiwar protest in which she and thousands of other women sat near a fish market, praying and fasting. Given this experience, I asked her what she thought of Occupy Wall Street. She noted that she hadn't been following closely in recent days, but said that as far as she knew, the protest still lacked "a focused agenda: this is what we want and these are the strategies we are going to use to get what we want."

Gbowee's coming work in Liberia will involve mentoring young women and helping them lead their communities, as well as working toward reconciliation of opposing factions. Worldwide, she says the biggest problem facing women today is violence, which includes not just violence against women in war zones, but also domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, and "the way the media objectifies women." It's interesting to hear her tie together the dangers faced by women in war with the allegedly very first-world problem of media objectification, but for Gbowee, these are all aspects of the same large-scale assault on women and their rights. But our conversation had a hopeful note — Gbowee was optimistic that women's activism was growing in power and scope. "This is the beginning," she said.

Leymah is featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which airs Tuesday night as a part of PBS' five part Women, War and Peace series.