ellen johnson sirleaf_web.jpgOSLO, Norway (AP) — Africa's first democratically elected female president, a Liberian campaigner against rape and a woman who stood up to Yemen's autocratic regime have won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the importance of women's rights in the spread of global peace.

The $1.5 million award was split three ways among Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, women's rights activist Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia, and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — the first Arab woman to win the prize.

No woman had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who died last month at 71; that was also the last time the prize went to an African.

Liberia was ravaged by civil wars for years until 2003. The drawn-out conflict that began in 1989 left about 200,000 people dead and displaced half the country's population of three

million. The country — created to settle freed American slaves in 1847 — is still struggling to maintain a fragile peace with the help of U.N. peacekeepers.

Sirleaf, 72, has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University and has held top regional jobs at the World Bank and the United Nations and within the Liberian government.

“This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation,” Sirleaf said Friday from her home in Monrovia. “Liberians should be proud.”

In elections in 1997, Sirleaf ran second to warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, who, many claimed, was voted into power by a fearful electorate. Though she lost by a landslide, she rose to national prominence and earned the nickname, “Iron Lady.” She went on to become Africa's first democratically elected female leader in 2005 and was up for re-election on Tuesday.

Preliminary results were not expected until Thursday but one group of poll observers puts Sirleaf’s Unity Party in the lead as ballots are being counted.

African and international luminaries welcomed the news of her award. Many had gathered in Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday to celebrate Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday.

“She deserves it many times over. She's brought stability to a place that was going to hell,” said Tutu, who won the peace prize in 1984 for his nonviolent campaign against white racist rule in South Africa.

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.”

Gbowee has long campaigned for the rights of women and against rape. In 2003, she led hundreds of female protesters through Monrovia to demand swift disarmament of fighters who preyed on women throughout Liberia during 14 years of near-constant civil war.

Gbowee works in Ghana's capital as director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa. The group's website says she is a mother of five.

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.

Photo: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf