Sunday, December 18, 2011

Regarding the Future of the Human Species

In my mind, the greatest challenge that faces the species in the 21st century is the issue of climate change.  It will prove to be the essential test as to whether the species is intelligent enough to recognize its culpability in endangering the life of the planet with the detritus of what is referred to as human progress; assume the appropriate responsibility for the consequences of its collective behavior, begin to seriously address the issue with the appropriate remedies in a timely fashion with the future in mind, or continue along its destructive path and suffer the undeniable fate.  If the past and present history of the species in regards to its capacity for stewardship of the planetary environment is any indicator than the real character of the future is sadly predictable.  With the optimism of Desmond Tutu in mind, what we need is a transfiguration on a global scale.  It is my fondest hope that such a monumental and unexpected change in human behavior occurs and radically alters human destiny.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The American Political Character

I have witnessed many presidential campaigns as a young and now aging adult.  I have seen my own idealism evolve into an optimism tempered by reality taking into account the essential frailty of the human spirit.  What I have noted over the years in regards to the national political climate is an ever-increasing mean-spiritedness – a growing inability on the part of members of the political opposition to listen to each other; to truly engage in meaningful conversation and dialog.  Politicians have become subservient to power and have almost completely abandoned their legitimate roles as servants of the people.  Instead, they seem to pander to the raw emotions, negative feelings, prejudices and fears of their constituents rather than appeal to the intellect.  

This is an alarming aspect of the American political life, for without meaningful discussion and reasoned arguments, the real problems that haunt American life will continue to haunt us.  This uncharitable, rude, unintelligent and often hostile view of those with differing views both inside national borders and directed at entire countries that do not share our supposed values is highly destructive. 

There is something strangely mesmerizing and perversely appealing about the unabashed ignorance that is endlessly flaunted by much of the national media.  I believe it appeals to the aggressiveness that is often a characteristic of human behavior.  Viewpoints that are based primarily upon fear and ignorance are, by their nature, destructive.  In the long run, decisions derived from a true meeting of minds and having as their foundation a belief in human love, humility and compassion will have a real chance to succeed and endure.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Doctor Paul Farmer

Doctor Paul Edward Farmer was born in 1959.  He was the second of six children; he grew up in the mill town of North Adams, Massachusetts.  In 1966, the family moved to Alabama and later relocated to Florida in 1971.  They were so poor that they lived in a bus that his father had purchased in auction.  There, as a young boy, he picked fruit with Haitian migrant workers and was probably influenced by that experience.  The extent of the economic deprivation that he felt growing up helped him understand what it means to be without, and may have inspired him to devote his life's energy to those in need.

Farmer is widely known for his remarkable and unrelenting service to the people of Haiti, driven by his desire to provide good quality health care and assistance to the impoverished people of that country.  In addition, he has been a strong advocate for Haiti in the international arena and has been particularly critical of what he sees as America's plan for fixing the nation's enfeebled economy. 


In order to have a clearer understanding of the economic and political forces that have come to shape present-day Haiti, it is important to have an historic perspective of this beleaguered country.  Hispaniola was colonized by Christopher Columbus' brother, Bartolomeo, for Spain in 1496.  He established the capital at Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) on the eastern side of the island.  In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick ceded France dominion over the western half of the island – present day Haiti.   During the eighteenth century, Haiti operated as a slave colony and a leading port of call for slave ships.  By the latter part of that century, nearly one out of every three slaves, who arrived in Haiti, died within a few years of reaching the colony.

In 1791, a revolt began against French domination.  This revolt was led by François-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture (May 20, 1743 – April 7, 1803).   Toussaint led enslaved blacks in a long struggle for independence over the French colonizers; ultimately, his movement abolished slavery, and secured "native" control over the Haitian colony.  In 1797, following his victory, L'Ouverture expelled the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, as well as the British army; freed the slaves in neighboring Santo Domingo, and wrote a Constitution naming himself governor-for-life.

Between the years 1800 and 1802, Toussaint L'Ouverture - translated from the French, his name literally means "all saints" or "all souls opening" - tried to rebuild the collapsed economy of Haiti and reestablish commercial contacts with the United States and Britain.  His rule permitted the colony a taste of freedom which, after his death in exile, was gradually undermined during the successive reigns of a series of despots.  His last words were to his son in France, "My boy, you will one day go back to St. Domingo; forget that France murdered your father."

In 1804, the independent state of Haiti was formed and it was declared as a safe haven for runaway slaves.  It is important to note here that the United States government refused to recognize Haiti's independence.  Sadly, the native population of Haiti is no longer extant; they were eliminated as a result of the Spanish domination that preceded the arrival of the French.

In 1825, King Charles X of France recognized the independence of the country only on condition that an indemnity of 150 million Francs - approximately one-half million dollars - be paid and that an agreement be reached regarding a reduction of import and export taxes placed on French goods; this arrangement was tantamount to extortion. These repayments continued until after World War II.  The effect of this agreement was devastating to the Haitian economy in that it represented a mass transfer of wealth from the poor indigenous people of Haiti to wealthy foreigners. 

From 1915 through 1934, Haiti was occupied by the U.S. military. The United States occupation of Haiti began on July 28, 1915, when 330 US Marines landed at Port-au-Prince as directed by President Woodrow Wilson.  They were dispatched to the island with the express purpose of protecting U.S. corporate interests.  It ended on August 1, 1934, during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.


Farmer first traveled to Haiti in 1983 while it was under the harsh dictatorship of the Duvalier family.  At that time, it was considered to be the poorest country in the western world.  Baby Doc Duvalier who was "President for Life" fled the country in 1986.  The first attempt at democratic elections was undertaken the following year; the fragile nature of this movement towards democracy was made apparent by the fact that a massacre took place at one of the polling stations. 

In 1990, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide ran for President and on Dec 16, 1990 he won sixty-seven percent of the popular vote.  He was a catholic priest who was an avid proponent of liberation theology and believed strongly in the, "preferential option for the poor," reminiscent of the work and mission of Father Romero of El Salvador.  He voiced opposition to the policies of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, President of the United States.  As a consequence, President Bush, who succeeded Reagan, funded Aristide's opposition and cut off aid.  The paramilitary group Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) rose to prominence and staged a coup on September, 1991 that left one thousand dead.  Aristide ultimately returned to power in 1994.

Before the devastating effect of the recent earthquake, the Haitian economy was already in terrible shape.  By the year 2000, the entire budget for Haiti, with a population of eight million people, was less than the budget of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city of 100,000 individuals.


Farmer graduated from Harvard Medical School with an ancillary PhD degree in anthropology.  He worked in Haiti for eight months out of every year without pay, serving peasants who had lost their land as a result of the construction of a hydroelectric dam.  For the remaining four months of each year, he worked in Boston living in a church sanctuary.  He was briefly expelled from Haiti during the reign of the military junta, but managed to sneak back into the country by bribing government officials.  In 1994, Jimmy Carter was dispatched by President Bill Clinton to try to persuade the junta to abdicate their pernicious rule of the country.  

The tireless energy of Farmer on behalf of the people of Haiti has earned him the affectionate title of the, "poor people's doctor."  In 1999, he also worked at the Brigham and Women's hospital in Boston and was the Professor of Medicine and Medical Anthropology at Harvard Medical School.

Farmer's primary concern and professional interest lies in the realm of the relationship between economic inequality and infectious disease.  In his mind, many of the premature deaths that occur throughout the world from uncontrolled infectious diseases are a direct result of the mal-distribution of medical technologies.  He is never reluctant to fault the rich countries for their failure to address this issue on a global scale, especially his home country, the United States.

On account of his strong commitment to the service of those in need and his passion to do whatever he can to counter the dire effects of poverty, he has created a remarkable community referred to as Partners in Health (PIH) in Zammi Lasante.  This complex includes a woman's clinic, a general hospital, an Anglican Church, a kitchen that prepares meals for 2,000 people daily and a treatment center for Tuberculosis (TB).  This medical center possesses two laboratories and an ambulatory clinic that serves hundreds of people.  One million peasant farmers - in a country of eight million -depend upon this facility.  The per capita income of the average Haitian is about one dollar per day.  Twenty-five percent of Haitians die before the age of 40.  Farmer is so committed to the health and well-being of the people of Haiti that no one is turned away.  In addition, PIH helps build schools, water systems and manages a vaccination program with the goals of vaccinating all children, reducing malnutrition and decreasing infant mortality. 


In 1993, Farmer was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant of $220,000 for his efforts.  He donated the entire sum to PIH.  The following is an excerpt of his acceptance speech on receiving this grant: "The individuals who are living in dire poverty throughout the world may well exceed one billion in number.  The suffering, starvation and premature death that is a consequence of this poverty is unconscionable in a world where the wealthiest nations enjoy an abundance and have ready access to a multiplicity of resources that are denied to so many of their fellow humans.  In many regards, the scale of this suffering is due to a lack of access to an adequate food supply, appropriate medical technology, education and basic information."


 Dr. Paul Farmer has dedicated his life to demonstrate that these horrific conditions can be effectively ameliorated, if not entirely eliminated, by making available to everyone what is currently available only to some.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homelessness in America

A recent report indicated that there are currently 40,000 homeless in New York City.  This is a staggering statistic – this number is equivalent to the entire population of a small town.  Given the harsh winters in New York, this is a very disturbing reality.  New York is by no means unique in this regard.  The following table shows homelessness statistics for the entire nation as of 2009.  Please keep in mind the fact that present economic situation has worsened considerably and these numbers are more than likely elevated.

In addition, there are many millions of individuals at a greater risk for homelessness as the following table indicates

Note – These data are taken from the National Report on Homelessness from the National Alliance to End Homelessness

The horrific state of homelessness impacts men, women, children, the old and the young, the mentally ill and even the handicapped.  There are, in fact, whole families that are homeless.  It is not uncommon for families to be homeless in which the head of the household is employed.  In my mind, there is no justifiable reason for anyone to be homeless in America; the suffering that is endured by so many is wholly unnecessary.  Consider the extent of the waste evident in the federal budget especially in regards to military expenditures and the ludicrous concessions made to corporations with the help of the legions of lobbyists paid exorbitant sums to extricate concessions from an essentially apathetic Congress.  Consider the vast transfer of public wealth to private hands that has transpired within the last thirty years.  Consider the corruption that is so evident within local governments.  These are governments that often pander to wealth and find all manner of rationales to ignore the plight of so many of their citizens.

The state of homelessness is evidence of the seemingly pervasive cultural indifference to the living conditions of those less fortunate.  This is a troubling aspect of American life.  It need not be the case, however.  This nation is woefully out of balance.  What is required is a sense of urgency in meeting the needs of those who are in crisis.  What is needed is a serious reevaluation of what we, as a people, collectively regards as important and worthy of immediate attention.  In my mind, to ignore those who suffer unnecessarily is to effectively undermine the future.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Role of Government

The nation is currently politically polarized.  The essence of this schism is the perceived role of government.  The Democrats have as their central thesis the idea that government needs to be directly involved in meeting the material needs of all of its citizens; while, the Republicans take the position that government's primary function is the security of its people and should not be involved in any other aspect of the lives of its people.

The theoretical divide between the parties is immense; however, in practical terms there is not much difference between them in that the leadership of both parties is wholly dependent upon the financial largesse provided by special interests that, for the most part, represent the wealthy, i.e. the corporate class.

The current ideas regarding the role of government are for this reason terribly flawed. They do not work, for neither viewpoint is grounded upon the unerring commitment to ethical and moral principles.  This is the core of the dilemma not only within the borders of the United States, but also in human societies in general.  It is the mindless pursuit of national self interest, geopolitical-inspired policies, empire building and a blind and a myopic view of national sovereignty that has led to exorbitant military budgets, the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction and ultimately war.  It is militarism that thwarts and often negates human progress; it is the unbounded use of violence to achieve selfish ends that undermines our collective humanity.

I propose a radically different reason d'être for government.  In my mind, the motivating force in government needs to be the global eradication of all the inequities that thwart human progress.  Billions of the world's people are suffering needlessly from abject poverty, preventable diseases, avoidable hunger, environmental degradation and political oppression.  It is completely unacceptable that the fate of so many human beings is dependent upon their place of origin.  These inequities are especially aggravated by the siphoning off of so much of the global wealth towards military expenditures, corporate welfare and by the apparent insensitivity of the affluent class to the plight of the world's people including those who live within their own countries. 
There is no real reason why humans cannot collectively create a better world for their own species and, likewise, accommodate and sustain the wondrous diversity of life on the planet.  We are in desperate need of a new paradigm to frame human existence.  Currently, so much of public policy throughout the world is driven by crazed and, often times, delusional thinking.  There is, however, a definite path towards collective sanity.

The primary incentive for change is the unavoidable reality that if the global status quo remains intact, the future for humanity is particularly grim.  Short term thinking and analysis especially from the sole perspective of profit and loss has already shown itself to be inadequate and disastrous.  At this juncture, it seems quite obvious that beneficial change will be in the hands of future generations.  There are numerous signs that a significant proportion of the younger generation has become acutely aware of the fragility of the environment and the severe plight of those less fortunate.  They have many tools available to them in terms of information about the world they live in provided by the Internet and they are highly connected with each other globally through the wonder of what is referred to as "social networking."  Significant and lasting change is, by its nature, cumbersome and slow, for it must work its way through the hearts and minds of the population.  As we have seen on numerous occasions, reform imposed from above is not necessarily the best approach.

There is a deep-seated and persistent hunger that manifests itself globally; this hunger is for a more equitable, just, peaceful and saner world.  There are many communities throughout the planet that are working towards this goal in innumerable ways.  These organizations are clearly growing in size and number and they are becoming more and more interconnected.  If this trend continues, it offers significant hope for meaningful change, for it may ultimately expand the idea of family beyond the rigid boundaries of genetic affiliation to encompass all of humanity.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

The White Rose

Within repressive regimes that do not rule at the behest of the general population, any opposition to the policies and beliefs as espoused by their leaders is necessarily seen as a threat to power.  Resistance in such cases is treated with unquestioning brutality, and terror is, by necessity, the tool that is used to retain control. 

In spite of the unrestrained application of collective punishment exacted by the Third Reich during the brief but disastrous reign of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, there were still instances of overt resistance by those courageous enough to stand up to the extreme brutality and repression.  The story of the White Rose exemplifies astounding courage, integrity and inherent optimism about human nature and humanity.

Before Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the German economy was in a terrible condition in part due to the draconian measures imposed as a result of the Treaty of Versailles following Germany's defeat in World War I.  For that reason, communism posed a possible threat to the status quo, for it offered an alternative economic model.  It was that threat that contributed to Hitler's rise to power.  Fascism and communism lie at opposite poles of the political spectrum.  Hitler's appeal was in part due to his declarations of the greatness and the superiority of the German people, and his promise to bring security and economic prosperity to them.  So strong was the anti-Bolshevist sentiment that twenty million Soviet citizens died as a result of Hitler's war.


At the university in Munich, Germany between 1942 and 1943, students had thrown hundreds of leaflets from the balcony into the school's vast entrance hall.  They also did direct mailings of these documents to many of the residences of Germany's major cities.  They were subsequently arrested for taking part in what we would regard as an expression of a fundamental democratic right and responsibility i.e. the airing of grievances.  The main players in this action were Hans Fritz Scholl (25), Sophia Magdalena Scholl (22) and Christopher Hermann Probst (24).  Others who were subsequently arrested were Willi Graf, Professor Kurt Huber and Alexander Schmorell.  Ultimately, they were all executed. 

The members of the White Rose were not naive; they understood the likely consequences of their actions - concentration camp or death.  They were idealistic young university students who saw the abysmal future that lie ahead of them if the policies of the Third Reich should continue to prevail; this prospect so horrified them that they felt compelled to act. 

The White Rose was the brainchild of Hans Scholl.  In many ways his views were informed by his father's influence who felt that the, "First concern of any German should not be military victory over Bolshevism, but the defeat of National Socialism."   National Socialism was the political party that espoused fascism as the substantive basis of its social and political agenda.

Hans and his sister Sophie grew up as normal children when Hitler had taken control of the government.  Hans was fifteen and his sister was twelve years old.  It was a time when Hitler's mesmerizing oratory about the greatness of the German people and the noble and great future that was ahead under his guiding hand was heard by the vast majority of the German people.  This had a remarkable impact on young and receptive minds.  Hans and Sophie joined the Hitler Youth.  At that time, they did not understand their father's serious reservations concerning National Socialism. 

This youthful attraction to patriotic fervor, however, quickly faded.  Hans' feelings about the rightness of Germany's "awakening," went through a remarkable transformation.   According to his sister Inge,  "…At this time he was honored with a very special assignment.  He was chosen to be the flag bearer when his troop attended the Party Rally in Nuremberg.  His joy was great.  But when he returned, we could not believe our eyes.  He looked tired and showed signs of a great disappointment.  We did not expect any explanation from him, but gradually we found out that the image and model of the Hitler Youth which had been impressed on him there was totally different from his own ideal.  The official view demanded discipline and conformity down to the last detail, including personal life, while he would have wanted every boy to follow his own bent and give free play to his talents.  The individual should enrich the life of the group with his own contribution of imagination and ideas.  In Nuremberg, however, everything was directed according to a set pattern.  Rebellion was stirring in Hans' mind."

These revelations planted the beginnings of doubt and mistrust.  His feelings rapidly spread to his siblings.  Their doubts were substantiated when they got the news of the existence of concentration camps.  In a state of profound moral confusion, the Scholl children went to their father,  seeking  some kind of resolution.  When he was asked, "Father, what is a concentration camp?" he answered, "That is war.  War in the midst of peace and within our own people.  War against human happiness and the freedom of its children.  It is a frightful crime." 

Feeling discouraged by the attitudes of their contemporaries, Hans and his close friends took consolation in an organization of young people called the Jungenschaft that existed in various German cities.  Within this group they could exercise their idealistic and romantic notions.  Ultimately, these groups became outlawed by the State, for they did not conform to party principles.  The disturbing events that surrounded him provoked Hans into an inquiry into philosophical principles.  He read the works of Plato, Pascal, Socrates and other philosophers in an attempt to find meaning amid the chaos that surrounded him.


Eventually the time had come to move on to higher education.  Hans had plans to go into medicine; this took him to the university in Munich.  It was while he was in school that war finally broke out.  As a result, he was subsequently inducted into a company of Medics, and soon took part in the French campaign.  There he lived the life of a half-soldier and half-student.  In this position, he witnessed the strangle hold that the Nazi doctrine exerted on his countrymen.  He found this terribly disquieting.

Hans and his fellow colleagues had discovered a philosophy professor by the name of Kurt Huber, who had a profound impact on them.  According to Huber, the Nazi regime was, "not only trampling on the divine order, but also attempting to annihilate God himself."  Professor Huber eventually joined the White Rose and was eventually executed by the State.

Sophie soon joined him at the University.  Her parents were growing terribly anxious about not only the political climate but the safety of their children.  Their fears were not unjustified, for within six weeks of Sophie's arrival in Munich, the first leaflets were distributed.

The following is a brief excerpt from this first leaflet, "…by means of gradual, treacherous, systemic abuse, the system has put every man into a spiritual prison.  Only now, finding himself lying in fetters, has he become aware of his fate…"  Three additional leaflets were distributed before those who were responsible for their creation, and distribution were discovered, arrested and eventually tried.


According to the trial documents surrounding the indictments of the members of the White Rose as they called themselves, "In the summer of 1942 the so-called Leaflets of the White Rose were distributed through the mails.  These seditious pamphlets contained attacks on National Socialism and on its cultural-political policies in particular; further, they contain statements concerning the alleged murder of the Jews and alleged forced deportation of the Poles.  In addition, the leaflets contained the demand to 'obstruct the continued functioning of the atheistic war machine by passive resistance, before it is too late and before the last of the German cities, like Cologne, become heaps of ruins and German youth had bled to death for the hubris of a sub-human.'" 


Needless to say, all the members of the White Rose and their "accomplices" who were arrested were given the death sentence.  It is a human tragedy of no small proportion, especially since what was described so vividly in the leaflets has been shown to be true.  Similarly, the dire predictions regarding the fate of Germany if the policies established by the National Socialists were to continue unobstructed all became reality in a very short time.  In spite of the tragic ending, these individuals demonstrated a selfless adherence to what they felt was right and displayed a remarkably courageous and non-violent opposition to what they knew to be terribly wrong; this is truly inspiring.  It is the kind of behavior that adds credence to the nobility and dignity of the human species.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Father Romero

Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdamez, Archbishop of San Salvador, was born on August 15, 1917 in Ciudad Barrios.  He was assassinated on March 24, 1980 in the midst of celebrating mass.  During the last three years of his life, he devoted himself tirelessly to the service of the poor and oppressed.  This was a significant departure from his earlier career in the priesthood.  He was at that time a different person; he was severe in manner and his spirituality was focused upon the institution of the church, its teachings and dogma.  He did not have any quarrel with the repressive policies of his government.

At that time, the government of San Salvador was under the directorship of General Molina, who led an ultra-conservative right wing government.   Molina was so confident that Father Romero was a man he could deal with that he promoted his candidacy for the office of Archbishop.  The Vatican chose Romero over the apparently more radical Bishop Rivera y Damas.  The radical transformation that would later take hold in Romero's mind would ultimately arouse the concern of the Salvadoran government, the U.S. State Department and the Vatican, for he became an eloquent and charismatic spokesman for the people, especially the downtrodden.

In the final months of his life, his passion for social justice, encapsulated within his pastoral messages, was heard directly throughout Central America, Columbia, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay.  His letters and homilies, continue to be translated to this day.


On February 3, 1977, Oscar Romero, Bishop of Santiago De Maria, was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador.  This was a crucial appointment for Romero, for the country was in the midst of a wave of government-sponsored repression spawned by an attempt to enact some modest land reform measures.  Molina came to power in 1972 as a result of an election that was considered by many to be fraudulent.  At first, Molina attempted to placate the reformists by approving the First Project for Agrarian Transformation.

Prior to Molina's election, the Legislative Assembly attempted to appeal to the growing demand for land reform from the people of San Salvador by  convening the National Agrarian Reform Congress. At that time, the majority of arable land was in the hands of a small population of wealthy individuals – a pattern that could be found throughout the region.  The goal of land reform was to break the land down into smaller parcels and redistribute it so that a far greater proportion of the population could own and work the land.  The congress included representatives from the government, the opposition, labor, and business groups. The delegates determined that landholdings above a certain size could be expropriated under the nation's constitution; this was a definitive call for expropriation. Although the work of this congress was only to make recommendations, it made the wealthy land owners particularly anxious, especially given the fact that in 1970, the Chilean people democratically elected Salvador Allende, an avowed communist, as their president. 

When Molina was elected – the legitimacy of his election was held in serious doubt -, the dramatic changes proposed by the National Agrarian Reform Congress were essentially abandoned and replaced by proposals that were, in fact, small and not terribly significant.  Nevertheless, the ruling oligarchy felt pressure from the landowners and ultimately cancelled the project entirely on October 19, 1976.  This was soon followed by violent repression.  A significant aspect of the government's reaction was the persecution of the church.

Molina was eventually replaced by General Romero who assumed power on July 1, 1977, and immediately dispensed with any attempt at agrarian reform and openly backed the financial and agribusiness interests.  His regime was marked by harsh repression against those who pushed for reform.  This period was also marked by the rise of the infamous death squads that led to the "disappearances" of great numbers of people.  On November 25, 1977, the Law of Defense and Guarantee of Public Order was passed.  This law legitimized the arbitrary imprisonment of opponents, the use of torture and the suppression of public meetings. 


The event that marked Father Romero's transformation, which he personally viewed as a conversion, was the assassination of Father Grande along with his two companions as he was on his way to celebrate mass.  This event represented an attack on the pastoral approach of the church with its preference for the poor, for Father Grande had been a key figure in the movement for apostolic renewal in the archdiocese – a proponent for the application of Vatican II to the Salvadoran church.

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II, was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church. It opened under Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962.  At that time the Catholic Church was faced with a world in a state of flux where dramatic social, cultural and economic changes were occurring throughout human societies.  Pope John made it clear that it was time for the church to adapt to the new world.  As a result, Christians outside the church were encouraged to send observers to the Council.  This unprecedented action was met by universal approval.

Following the disturbing news of the assassination of Father Grande, Romero began to speak out eloquently for the poor and against repression.  He once stated that, "These days I have to walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope."


We will examine in some detail the contents of three of his pastoral letters that provide clear insights into his thinking.  The first pastoral letter entitled, The Easter Church was written on April 10, 1977.  It was essentially Romero's way of introducing himself to his people.  In this letter, he embraced Liberation Theology that was inspired by the conclusions reached by Vatican II.  In it, he quotes from a meeting of the bishops of Latin America in 1968.  "We are on the threshold of a new epoch in the history of our continent.  It appears to be a time full of zeal for full emancipation, of liberation from every form of servitude, of personal maturity, and of collective integration.  The church cannot be indifferent when faced with a muted cry that pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else."  He goes on to say, "Hence, when preaching liberation and associating ourselves with those who are working and suffering for it, the Church is certainly not willing to restrict her mission only to the religious field and dissociate herself from man's temporal problems."  This represents a significant statement with powerful political implications, and obviously posed a significant threat to the established order.

The second pastoral letter entitled, The Church, the Body of Christ in History deals essentially with what Romero perceives to be the church's contemporary mission.  In it he states, "The church looks upon the world with new eyes, it will raise questions about what is sinful in the world, and it will also allow itself to be questioned by the world as to what is sinful in the church."  He goes on further to state, "This preference of Jesus for the poor stands out throughout the gospel.  It was for them that he worked his cures and exorcisms; he lived and ate with them; he united himself with, defended and encouraged all those who, in his day, were on the margin of society, whether for social or for religious reasons: sinners, publicans, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers.  This choice of Jesus to be with those who are marginalized is the sign that he gives to confirm the content of what he preaches: that the kingdom of God is at hand."  With this statement, Romero clearly establishes his affinity for the poor and marginalized, and proclaims an activist mission.  This kind of declaration was particularly disturbing to those in power.

Finally, in his third pastoral letter entitled, The Church and Popular Political Organizations, Romero clearly aligns himself with political organizations seeking social justice; these were the same organizations that were under attack by the security apparatus of the State.  In this missive, he unambiguously states that, "We want simply, in this section, to restate the right to organize and to denounce the violation of that right in our country."  Furthermore, he denounces the use of violence, especially against those who seek to organize in response to the repressive policies of government.  He also takes issue with violent conflict between various campesino groups clearly taking a stand for peace and against violence regardless of the perpetrators.


The power of his ideas resonated not only with the poor of San Salvador but throughout the region.  He was perceived as a real threat to the established order and was ultimately silenced for his activism.  His words, however, still live on, and his message continues to resonate within the hearts and minds of those who suffer at the hands of the powerful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams

Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were both Irish Catholic women born and raised in Ulster County in Northern Ireland.  Although they were of different temperaments and markedly distinct in their approaches to living, they both became instrumental in focusing attention upon the seeming endless cycle of violence and retribution that had come to dominate the lives of ordinary citizens in that region.  They were instrumental in the formation of the Community of Peace People and ultimately won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for their efforts.

In regards to problems facing Northern Ireland at that time, it would be of interest to spend some time examining the history of Ireland.  Ever since the landing of King Henry II's Norman host on the shores of Ireland in the twelfth century, the enmity between the Irish and the British had been incessant.  Although Queen Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and King William III all tried to control Ireland and its people, they were essentially unsuccessful.  Numerous attempts were made to introduce colonies of Protestants from Scotland as a way to subdue the native population.  Invariably, these transplants would be absorbed into the local culture with the exception of Ulster County.  Only in this Northern Province did this strategy meet with any success.

Until 1972, the Constitution of Ulster was based on the Irish Government Act of 1920 that provided home rule for the South of Ireland comprised of majority Catholic, while the Protestant Northeast remained with Great Britain.  This resulted in two separate parliaments – one in Dublin and the other in Belfast.  Both had representation in the British Parliament.  In 1922, Southern Ireland rejected this arrangement and formed the Irish Free State that remained with the British Commonwealth and in 1948 became the Republic of Ireland.  In contrast to the situation in Southern Ireland, in June of 1921, the Parliament of Northern met for the first time.  The forty-six Protestant and Unionist members were all present, but the twelve Catholic members of the Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army – IRA) boycotted the ceremony.  The goal of Sinn Fein was the unification of all of Ireland and the abrogation of all links with what came to be regarded as British imperialism.   This boycott resulted in the formation a government with no political input from the Catholic population, since no Catholic representatives were present. 

In response to the threat posed by the IRA, the Belfast government created the so-called B Special police reservists that came to be hated by the Catholic population.  In addition, in 1922, a Special Powers Act was made into law; this legislation allowed for so-called "administrative internment" – permitting the imprisonment of suspected terrorists without due process.    The Protestants were represented for the most part by the Unionist Party and its associated extremist group – the Orange Order.  Unionists sought to maintain their relationship with Great Britain.  They carried every election between 1921 and 1969. 

For almost fifty years prior to 1969, the one million Protestants of Northern Ireland had exercised excessive authority over the one-half million Catholics of the region giving them only a de-facto voice in provincial government.  This discrimination led to the formation of Catholic and Protestant ghettoes with the Catholics often denied their fair share of community resources.

Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the United States, the Catholics of Northern Ireland sought a redress of their grievances.  A commission set up by Lord Cameron from Great Britain ascertained that the Catholic population was, in fact, discriminated against by the Protestant majority resulting in excessive unemployment and a lack of adequate housing.  There were demonstrations and marches sponsored by the North Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) that demanded one vote per person in municipal elections and the abolishment of gerrymandering – the political realigning of electoral boundaries to shift election results - and discrimination.  In October of 1968, the Belfast government prohibited NICRA from organizing and outlawed civil rights marches in Londonderry.  A march took place in spite of the ban and violence erupted.

These events fueled antagonism and hatred between the two groups.  This came to a head in 1969 when there were reports of Protestant incursions into the Catholic sectors with subsequent arsonist attacks.  In response to this violence, the Provisional arm of the Irish Republican Army (Provos) began to recruit new members and to respond with violence.  Any attempts to assuage this regional discord was found unacceptable to the extremists in both camps.   On August 14, 1969, the British sent troops to Northern Ireland to help the local police restore public order in Londonderry and Belfast.  An attempt was made to set up a regional government acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants.  This attempt failed.  For eight years, the region was overwhelmed by bombings, indiscriminate killings and targeted assassinations.  This atmosphere left people terribly frightened and irrational as acts of terror invariably do.

When British forces came to Northern Ireland in an attempt to quell the unrest, they imposed a solution through the Temporary Provisions Act of 1972.  This act abolished the Belfast Parliament, suspended the Belfast Parliament and transferred all executive power to the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland – a position that held a cabinet rank in the British government.  This newly appointed Chief Executive was expected to accomplish the following:

·         Reassure the Protestant majority – Northern Ireland would not to cease to be a part of the United Kingdom without consent of the regional parliament

·         Support the Catholic minority by honoring their concerns and addressing their grievances

·         Maintain a British military presence in Ulster until a resolution of the crisis.

Unfortunately, all attempts at power sharing failed.


This was the social and political environment that surrounded the lives of Corrigan and Williams.  They were living separate lives and did not know of each other's existence; until, a fateful tragedy radically changed their futures and connected them irrevocably to the cause of peace.

On August 10, 1976, a woman, Mrs. Anne Maguire, happened to be walking with her three children next to a busy street.  Suddenly, they were hit by a car carrying Provos that were being chased by British forces.  The driver lost control of the car after he was shot and killed by the pursuing troops.  Her children Andrew and Joanna died instantly and the mother was grievously wounded.  Mrs. Pat O'Connor, the aunt of the Maguire children witnessed the event.  Maguire's son John later died of his injuries.  Mairead Corrigan was also an aunt to the three dead children, and Betty Williams had been near the scene of the accident and saw the tragedy in its entirety.


This singular incident so impacted Corrigan and Williams; they were so utterly outraged by this event that seemed to categorize the state of mind of the people of Northern Ireland that they helped organize a protest for the following day that involved fifty Catholic women pushing baby carriages.  Although the IRA tried to shift the blame regarding the tragedy to the British occupation, it was not convincing.  The residents of this troubled region, especially women, were tired of the violence and they wanted it to end. 

In an interview by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Corrigan said, "It is not violence that people want."  She went on to condemn all those who encouraged young people to join paramilitary organizations – "Only one percent of the people of this province want this slaughter."

Williams, for her part, helped sponsor a news event in her neighborhood in order to draw attention to public sentiment against violence.  Similar events quickly spread throughout Belfast leading to what was described as a disorganized uprising.  Forty-eight hours following the children's deaths, Williams called for a petition against violence over the local television station; this petition yielded over 6,000 signatures.  This petition demanded that the IRA halt its military campaign.  In addition, a march was announced for the following day and Protestant women were invited to attend.  The group was to march to Hilltown Cemetery where all the Maguire children were to be buried.  Williams received telegrams of support from, labor unions, private organizations and individuals.  On Saturday, the day of the march, 10,000 women came to Andersontown – a Catholic ghetto as a huge demonstration of support.  Although the women were attacked by Republicans during the march, the event was overwhelmingly successful.  Out of this demonstration, the Community of Peace People was born.


Betty Williams was thirty-six years old at the time to the tragedy that struck the Maguire children.  She was living quietly in a two bedroom house.  She was a working housewife and mother.  Williams possesses a forceful personality and is extremely outgoing.    She was born in 1941 and was married in 1963.  She has two children.  Her husband was a maritime engineer and spent as much as eleven months out of the year away from home; therefore, the day-to-day responsibilities for the family fell upoon her.  They lived in Finaghy, a Catholic sector in the Southwest part of Belfast.  When Williams was thirteen, her mother had an incapacitating stroke, and, as a consequence, she took on the role of raising her younger sister.  William's mother was Catholic, her father was Protestant and her maternal grandmother was Jewish; this reality probably influenced her tendency towards open-mindedness as an adult.  Although she was admittedly apathetic before the tragedy that she witnessed, Williams ultimately devoted herself entirely to the peace movement.

   Corrigan was 33 three years of age and was still living with her parents at the time.  She was living in one of the so-called "hot" Catholic sectors in West Belfast.  In spite of the fear that gripped her neighborhood regarding the ever present possibility of acts of terror, Corrigan was active in her community.   She worked as a secretary for Guinness - the well known Irish brewery, and in the evenings worked for the Legion of Mary that helped provide services for those in need. 

Corrigan was born on January 27, 1944 in the Catholic ghetto of Falls in West Belfast.  She was born into a large family – five girls and two boys.  Since the Ulster state schools required the teaching of the Protestant religion, she was sent to a Catholic school.   Corrigan quit school at the age of 14 for economic reasons.  At a point in her life she moved to Andersontown and worked with disadvantaged adolescents.  Andersontown was a bleak Catholic community; the city was built quickly after World War II for Catholics and offered little in the way of amenities; there were no playgrounds, community centers, movie theatres and especially nothing for the children.  In spite of all the violence that erupted from 1969, as discussed earlier, Corrigan remained calm and refused to give in to fear.  She remained an avowed pacifist.  She was quoted as saying, "…for violence to cease, must discover the cause and change things." 


As a consequence of their efforts, Corrigan and Williams were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for their extraordinary efforts. 

The following is an excerpt from Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech delivered by Williams – "…But unlocking the desire for peace would never have been enough. All the energy, all the determination to express an overwhelming demand for an end to the sickening cycle of useless violence would have reverberated briefly and despairingly among the people, as had happened so many times before ... if we had not organized ourselves to use that energy and that determination positively, once and for all.

So in that first week Mairead Corrigan, Ciaran McKeown and I founded the Movement of the Peace People, in order to give real leadership and direction to the desire which we were certain was there, deep within the hearts of the vast majority of the people,... and even deep within the hearts of those who felt, perhaps still do, feel obliged, to oppose us in public.

That first week will always be remembered of course for something else besides the birth of the Peace People. For those most closely involved, the most powerful memory of that week was the death of a young republican and the deaths of three children struck by the dead man's car. A deep sense of frustration at the mindless stupidity of the continuing violence was already evident before the tragic events of that sunny afternoon of August 10, 1976. But the deaths of those four young people in one terrible moment of violence caused that frustration to explode, and create the possibility of a real peace movement. Perhaps the fact that one of those children was a baby of six weeks in a pram pushed by his mother made that tragedy especially unbearable. Maybe it was because three children from one family, baby Andrew, little John and eight-year-old Joanne Maguire died in one event which also seriously injured their mother, Anne, Mairead's sister, that the grief was so powerful. Perhaps it was the sheer needlessness of this awful loss of life that motivated people to turn out in protesting thousands that week. And we do not forget the young republican, Danny Lennon who lost his life that day. He may have been involved in trying to shoot soldiers that day and was himself shot dead, and some may argue that he got what he deserved. As far as we are concerned, this was another young life needlessly lost. As far as we are concerned, every single death in the last eight years, and every death in every war that was ever fought represents life needlessly wasted, a mother's labor spurned…"


These two women thrust together by forces out of their immediate control, created a peace movement that was so effective that it has served as a model for social non-violent action to address issues of peace and social justice.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt is, of course, famous for her role as the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) – 32nd president of the United States.  We have seen from our previous discussions that FDR was instrumental in leading the country through two enormous crisis's – one being the Great Depression of 1929-1938 and the other World War II that claimed over fifty million lives worldwide.  Roosevelt made significant contributions to the country in her own rite as we shall see.

Roosevelt spent twelve years in the white house.  She was often a seminal figure for her time.  She was an activist and often took political stands independent of FDR.  She was, in many ways, an idealist and a feminist and she often inspired controversy regarding her public positions.

Roosevelt's parents, Elliott and Anna were married in 1883.  She was born on October 11, 1884 into a well-place family; her uncle was Teddy Roosevelt who assumed the presidency in 1901 following the assassination of President McKinley and remained in that office until 1909.   He was the elder brother of her deceased father, Elliot Roosevelt.  The members of the Roosevelt family were originally Democrats, but they switched over to the Republican Party on account of their support for the abolitionist movement that was staunchly opposed to slavery.  It was not until FDR that the family realigned itself with the Democratic Party.  Although Teddy Roosevelt was a member of the Republican Party, later in his political career he became liberal in his philosophy particularly concerned about the natural environment and the living conditions of those who were in need.

Roosevelt lost both her parents before she was ten years old.  Her father, Elliott, committed suicide and she lost her mother soon after that.  She was subsequently raised by her maternal grandmother.   As a consequence of the turmoil surrounding her early life, her grandmother chose to raise Eleanor strictly.  As a consequence, she was sent to an English boarding school, Allenswood, outside of London, for her education.   She was there between the ages of 15 and 18 years old.  There is some suspicion that she may have been sent abroad because of sexual advances made by her uncles.  The school was run by Marie Souvestre, who took an interest in the young Roosevelt.  She helped the young woman gain self-confidence.  Souvestre was an avowed and unabashed atheist who may have opened Roosevelt's mind to unconventional thinking.  Her mentor also helped her become socially conscious.

Upon graduation, Roosevelt became involved in the settlement house movement, as described previously.  She also gravitated towards teaching and taught dancing to immigrant girls at the Irvington Street Settlement in New York's lower East Side.  On one particular occasion, she invited FDR there and introduced him to the slum conditions in New York.  He was so astonished that he was reported to have said, "My God, I didn't know anyone lived like that."  This kind of exposure of the future president to the actual living conditions of the poor probably helped to influence his desire for social reform.

Roosevelt became involved in social causes such as the National Consumers League, an association that greatly influenced Frances Perkins (see above), the League of Women Voters and the Women's Trade Union League.  As she was involved with the National' Consumer's League and its programs, she became acutely aware of the sweatshop conditions that many workers endured.

Roosevelt and FDR were married in March of 1905.  Between the years of 1906-1916, Roosevelt gave birth to six children; one died.  Her married life was not the most congenial, for the family lived with FDR's mother, Sara an imperious and uncompromising woman.  Their living arrangements were such that her mother-in-law could appear unannounced any time she chose and felt free to discipline her grandchildren.  This was very unnerving for Roosevelt, who was, even according to her children, a somewhat erratic parent.

FDR's political ambitions steadily grew as the years went on.  He got his first real break when he was elected to the New York State Senator in 1910.  These were somewhat momentous years for the country and especially for women.  Roosevelt actively supported the women suffrage movement from 1911 and in 1920 a woman's right to vote was added as Amendment nineteen to the U.S. Constitution.  In 1913, FDR was chosen as the Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson.  The family moved to Washington D.C.  Roosevelt was somewhat relieved, for she could finally get out of the shadow of her domineering mother-in-law.   On account of his growing work load, FDR hired a personal secretary, Lucy Page Mercer – a choice that would prove to be extremely momentous.  In 1918, Roosevelt accidentally came across a packet of love letters from Mercer that spanned two years.  This momentous finding permanently changed Roosevelt's relationship with her husband and inadvertently freed her to pursue her own destiny.  They remained married but from that moment on lived separate lives.  In spite of this Roosevelt's help in regards to FDR's political ambitions remained strong and decisive.

During World War I, Roosevelt became involved in the Red Cross.   Increasingly, she became an advocate for those in need.   She became a strong spokesperson for the mentally ill and was shocked by the conditions she witnessed at St. Elizabeth's hospital for the mentally ill.  After the war, she contracted Tuberculosis and did not take the disease as seriously as she should have; it was partly responsible for the death some forty-three years later.

In 1921, Roosevelt joined the League of Women Voters and ultimately became Vice Chairman.  Her main interests were in world peace, a woman's right to serve on juries and equal prosecution for both men and women in prostitution cases.  Roosevelt was an unflinching advocate in the areas of peace and social justice and especially that of women's rights in all areas of social and political life.  She was such an avowed and outspoken proponent of peace that the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover kept a file on her.  Hoover was a rabid anti-communist and feared that Roosevelt might be linked with their efforts. 

In that same year, FDR was stricken by polio.  He had such a severe case that he was never able to walk again without assistance.  Although this reality drove him into a state of depression in which he thought of relinquishing his political ambitions; it was the support of Roosevelt and his good friend and adviser, Louis Howe, that encouraged him to persevere.

The Roosevelts, in many ways, led parallel lives.  She thrust herself into women's issues and allied herself with like-minded women, including Jane Adams, who, as discussed previously founded the Hull House – the famous settlement house in Chicago – and the first president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Carrie Chapman Catt of the League of Women Voters.  There were two women, in particular, that she became deeply involved with – Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook.  So strong was this bond that FDR built a stone cottage in Hyde Park, the family estate, called Val-Kill for these three women as their retreat.  In 1927, Cook purchased the Todhunter School who purpose was to wage political warfare against what was perceived to be reactionary forces.  These women joined in a concerted effort to encourage social reform in the areas of a minimum wage, an end to child labor and the right of workers to unionize.

In 1928, FDR was elected as governor of New York State a definitive stepping stone to his ultimate aspiration – the presidency of the United States.  During their stay in Albany, Roosevelt divided her time between Albany and the Todhunter School where she functioned as an Associate Principal and a teacher.  In this same period, she became involved in a New York State Joint Legislative Conference that pushed for unemployment compensation, minimum wage and pensions.  Roosevelt and her husband did not always agree.  As governor he was not willing to sponsor child labor legislation and abandoned support for Prohibition as well as the League of Nations and the World Court – causes that Roosevelt adamantly supported.  As a matter of fact, FDR's brain trust considered his wife to be too idealistic and too assertive.

On account of all of her involvements, Roosevelt limited her engagement with FDR's presidential campaign of 1932.  During his presidency, Roosevelt became more deeply involved in her own causes.  Although she discontinued her involvement with the Todhunter School, she pursued writing and public speaking.  As a matter of fact, she earned a considerable amount of money following these interests – a reality that created quite a stir of criticism. 

It was during this period that she met Lorena Hickok – Hick.  They became so involved with each other that they exchanged daily letters.  There has been some suggestion that their relationship was erotic in nature – a suggestion that has never been confirmed.

Eleanor became quite famous for her syndicated column called "My Day."  Although it was dismissed by her critics as being shallow and banal, it helped introduce a common touch in regards to the often mundane reality surrounding the presidency and was widely read.  This column was also a vehicle through which Roosevelt could express her political philosophy and often referred to New Deal policies and programs.

In regards to matters of race and race relations, Roosevelt made her position clear and unambiguous on numerous occasions.  As a profound example of her staunch belief in equal rights for all citizens, she withdrew her membership from the Daughters of the American Revolution (FDR) when they denied the renowned African-American contralto, Marion Anderson, from singing in Constitution Hall on account of the color of her skin.  To put a spotlight on this injustice, Anderson sang outside the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd estimated to be 75,000.  Roosevelt also refused to observe segregated seating at the founding convention of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare held in Birmingham Alabama.

Roosevelt endured the horrendous and destabilizing years during World War II and with infinite grace helped assuage the nation's anxieties as that conflict negatively impacted so many Americans.  Roosevelt's passionate concerns, interests and boundless activism for the causes of peace and social justice placed into the spotlight the liberal approach to public policy that she personified.  She passed away on November 7, 1962.


The following is taken from a speech Roosevelt made entitled, The Struggle for Human Rights on September 28, 1948 in Paris.

"I have come this evening to talk with you on one of the greatest issues of our time -- that is the preservation of human freedom. I have chosen to discuss it here in France, at the Sorbonne, because here in this soil the roots of human freedom have long ago struck deep and here they have been richly nourished. It was here the Declaration of the Rights of Man was proclaimed, and the great slogans of the French Revolution -- liberty, equality, fraternity -- fired the imagination of men. I have chosen to discuss this issue in Europe because this has been the scene of the greatest historic battles between freedom and tyranny. I have chosen to discuss it in the early days of the General Assembly because the issue of human liberty is decisive for the settlement of outstanding political differences and for the future of the United Nations.

The decisive importance of this issue was fully recognized by the founders of the United Nations at San Francisco. Concern for the preservation and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms stands at the heart of the United Nations. Its Charter is distinguished by its preoccupation with the rights and welfare of individual men and women. The United Nations has made it clear that it intends to uphold human rights and to protect the dignity of the human personality. In the preamble to the Charter the keynote is set when it declares: "We the people of the United Nations reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." This reflects the basic premise of the Charter that the peace and security of mankind are dependent on mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize

The following are brief bios garnered from different sources on the Internet that demonstrate the actions and determination that earned the following three individuals the distinction of winning the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born 29 October 1938) is the 24th and current President of Liberia. She served as Minister of Finance under President William Tolbertfrom 1979 until the 1980 coup d'état, after which she left Liberia and held senior positions at various financial institutions. She placed a very distant second in the1997 presidential election. Later, she was elected President in the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006. Sirleaf is the first and currently the only elected female head of state in Africa.

Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen. The women were recognized "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."[1] However, this has generated controversy in Liberia as it has been interpreted by Sirleaf's political critics as having granted her an "unfair advantage" immediately before the upcoming Liberian Presidential election, which is scheduled to occur on October 11, 2011.

2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Roberta Gbowee is the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra, Ghana. She is a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). During her tenure as coordinator for WIPNET/WANEP, Ms. Gbowee organized collaborative peace-building initiatives for hundreds of women peacebuilders from nine of Liberia's 15 counties. She also served as a commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Additionally, Ms. Gbowee has presented on several regional and international panels, including UNIFEM's "Women and the Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Repatriation (DDRR) Process." In 2005, she presented at the United Nations Security Council's (UNSC) Arria Formula Meeting on women, peace, and security organized around the 5th anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325. Ms. Gbowee has received numerous international honors for her peace-building work. In 2007, The Women's Leadership Board at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government recognized Ms. Gbowee with the Blue Ribbon Peace Award. This annual award is given to individuals and organizations that have made a significant contribution to peacebuilding through innovative strategies that promote women's leadership in peace processes on the local, national, or international level. In 2009, Ms. Gbowee and the women of Liberia were given the Profiles in Courage Award by the Kennedy Library Foundation. In October 2011, Ms. Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, a pro-democracy campaigner. The award serves to highlight Ms. Gbowee's work in mobilizing women across ethnic and religious divides to end the decade-long Liberian civil war. Ms. Gbowee is the central character of the award-winning documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" which profiles her role in the peace process. (10.2011)

Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni journalist and activist, is one of three women awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She becomes the first Arab woman to win the prize.

The 32-year-old mother of three founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005.

She has been a prominent activist and advocate of human rights and freedom of expression for the last five years, and led regular protests and sit-ins calling for the release of political prisoners.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited Ms Karman and the two other winners for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work".

The Nobel jury specifically lauded Ms Karman for playing, "in the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab Spring... a leading part in the struggle for women's rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen."

'So happy'

Ms Karman told the BBC Arabic Service: "I'm so happy with the news of this prize and I dedicate it to all the martyrs and wounded of the Arab Spring… in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria and to all the free people who are fighting for their rights and freedoms.

"Actually I didn't know I was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize until now. I only knew about it through BBC Arabic and al-Jazeera, so thank you very much."

In comments to the AFP news agency she said that the prize was "a recognition by the international community of the Yemeni revolution and its inevitable victory".

Ms Karman has led rallies in the continuing protests against the rule of President Ali-Abdullah Saleh.

Speaking to the BBC in April 2011 in Change Square in Sanaa, the heart of the popular demonstrations against Mr Saleh, Ms Karman said she was astonished at the protests: "I could never imagine this. In Yemen, women are not allowed out of the house after 7pm, now they are sleeping here. This goes beyond the wildest dream I have ever dreamt, I am so proud of our women."

She is a member of Yemen's leading Islamist opposition party, the Islah - a conservative, religious movement that calls for reform in accordance with Islamic principles.

She has campaigned to raise the minimum age at which women can marry in Yemen.

She has been jailed several times for her activism, pilloried in the official media and attacked. Unusually for a woman in Yemen, Ms Kamran wears a headscarf not a full face veil.