Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni women's rights activist Tawakul Karman have been named winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the names at a ceremony in the capital, Oslo, on Friday, saying the three were honoured for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work".
Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, told Al Jazeera that it was a conscious decision to award this year's prize to women.
"We want to point to the role of women and the inferior role of women and how this role can be improved," he said.
"I mean, women suffer in wars and if we are to have peace, we have to have democracy with full rights for women and we also have to have women as peace builders. So this year, it was the year of the women."
The committee said that since her inauguration in 2006, Johnson-Sirleaf had "contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women".
Gbowee mobilised and organised 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, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.
It said Yemen's Karman had "played a leading part in the struggle for women's rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen" in what was described as the "most trying circumstances both before and during the 'Arab Spring'".
The winners will receive their award at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of prize founder Alfred Nobel.
|Leymah Gbowee will share the prize with her president and Yemeni rights activist [Reuters]
Sirleaf became Africa's first elected female head of state in 2005 and is seeking a second term in next week's Liberian elections.
Al Jazeera's Will Jordan, reporting from Liberia's capital, Monrovia, said the prize would be a "big benefit" for Johnson-Sirleaf in her re-election bid.
But he said the Liberian leader might struggle to win votes in the capital, as most of her supporters live in rural areas.
The head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, had told public broadcaster NRK earlier on Thursday that he believed this year's pick would be "well-received all over the world."
He said then that the award would be "very powerful ... but at the same time very unifying".
While the 2011 pick "is not without conflict", he stressed the prize would "not create as strong reactions from a single country as it did last year" with the choice of Liu Xiaobo.
Favourites played down
Jagland played down observers' favourite this year: actors within the Arab Spring uprising, which brought the overthrow of longstanding government sin Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattled the ones in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
"There are many other positive developments in the world that we have looked at," he said.
"I think it is a little strange that researchers and others have not seen them."
Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman talks to Al Jazeera
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, told Al Jazeera the choice of the three women was "surprising".
"People were very excited and thought this year would be the year of the Arab Spring. I am not sure what the rationale was exactly, but I think this might be interpreted as a slight to the Arab world," he said.
Esraa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher of Egypt, who founded the April 6th youth movement, had been seen as top picks.
The movement, which began on Facebook, "played a key role in maintaining the direction and non-violent character of the uprisings in Egypt," which led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February after 30 years in power, Kristian Berg Harpviken, the head of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, said.
Google executive Wael Ghonim, also a central inspiration to the protests on Tahrir Square in Cairo, was another observer favourite, as was Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who chronicled the revolution in her country on the internet.
Among other names that had been circulating were Sima Samar, an Afghan doctor and women's rights activist, and Svetlana Gannushkina, a Russian activist, and her human rights group, Memorial.
The EU, currently battling daunting debt problems, had also been increasingly mentioned as a possible winner for its role in keeping the peace in most of Europe for more than half a century.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies