OSLO, Norway (AP) -- The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and democratic activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen for their work on women's rights, which the prize committee described as fundamental to the spread of peace around the world.
By citing Karman, the committee also appeared to be acknowledging the effects of the Arab Spring, which has challenged authoritarian regimes across the region.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored the three women "for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."
"We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society," the prize committee said.
Prize committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said he hoped the prize would bring more attention to rape and other violence against women as well as women's role in promoting democracy in Africa and the Arab and Muslim world.
Karman is a 32-year-old mother of three who heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains. She has been a leading figure in organizing protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh that kicked off in late January as part of a wave of anti-authoritarian revolts that have convulsed the Arab world.
"I am very very happy about this prize," Karman told The Associated Press. "I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people."
Citing the Arab Spring alone could have been problematic for the committee. The unrest toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But Libya descended into civil war that led to NATO military intervention. Egypt and Tunisia are still in turmoil. Hardliners are holding onto power in Yemen and Syria and a Saudi-led force crushed the uprising in Bahrain, leaving an uncertain record for the Arab protest movement.
Jagland said it was difficult to find a leader of the Arab Spring revolts, especially among the many bloggers who played a role in energizing the protests, and noted that Kamran's work started before the Arab uprisings.
"Many years before the revolutions started she stood up against one of the most authoritarian and autocratic regimes in the world," he told reporters.
Johnson Sirleaf, 72, is a Harvard-trained economist who became Africa's first democratically elected female president in 2005.
Liberia was ravaged by civil wars for years until 2003 and is still struggling to maintain a fragile peace with the help of U.N. peacekeepers.
Sirleaf was seen as a reformer and peacemaker in Liberia when she took office. She is running for re-election this month and opponents in the presidential campaign have accused her of buying votes and using government funds to campaign. Her camp denies the charges.
The committee cited Johnson Sirleaf's efforts to secure peace in her country, promote economic and social development and strengthen the position of women.
Jagland said the committee didn't consider the upcoming election in Liberia when it made its decision.
"We cannot look to that domestic consideration," he said. "We have to look at Alfred Nobel's will, which says that the prize should go to the person that has done the most for peace in the world."
Gbowee, who organized a group of Christian and Muslim women to challenge Liberia's warlords, was honored for mobilizing women "across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women's participation in elections."
In 2009 she won a Profile in Courage Award, an honor named for a 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by John F. Kennedy, for her work in emboldening women in Liberia.
"I know Leymah to be a warrior daring to enter where others would not dare," said Gbowee's assistant, Bertha Amanor. "So fair and straight, and a very nice person."
Yemen is an extremely conservative society but a feature of the uprising there has been a prominent role for women who turned out for protests in large numbers.
A resident of Taiz, a city in southern Yemen that is a hotbed of resistance against Saleh's regime, Karman is a journalist and member of Islah, an Islamic party. Her father is a former legal affairs minister under Saleh.
Long an advocate for human rights and freedom of expression in Yemen, she has been campaigning for Saleh's ouster since 2006 and mounted an initiative to organize Yemeni youth groups and opposition into a national council.
On Jan. 23, Karman was arrested at her home. After widespread protests against her detention -- it is rare for Yemen women to be taken to jail -- she was released early the next day.
Karman has been dubbed "Iron Woman, "The Mother of Revolution" and "The Spirit of the Yemeni Revolution" by fellow protesters.
During a February rally in Sanaa, she told the AP: "We will retain the dignity of the people and their rights by bringing down the regime."
In his 1895 will, award creator Alfred Nobel gave only vague guidelines for the peace prize, saying it should honor "work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
The peace prize is the only Nobel handed out in Oslo, Norway. The other five awards -- in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics -- are presented in Stockholm.
Last year's peace prize went to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.