Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, compatriot "peace warrior" Leymah Gbowee and Yemen's Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman won the Nobel Peace Prize Friday in a nod to women's empowerment.
The three will share the 2011 award "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work," Norwegian Nobel Committee president Thorbjoern Jagland said.
The Nobel jury's choice can be seen as a celebration of women's growing empowerment globally and especially in deeply conservative and tribal countries like Yemen or war-scarred nations like Liberia where women are easily victimised.
It is also a recognition of the winds of liberation and change still sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa, pushed forward by courageous activists, many of whom are women.
Sirleaf, 72, made history when she became Africa's first elected woman president in 2005, taking over after 14 years of civil war that left 250,000 dead.
She dedicated her Nobel to "all Liberian people," but her rival in next Tuesday's presidential elections called the timing of the award provocative and unacceptable.
Sirleaf's rise to power may never have happened without the efforts of activist and social worker Gbowee, 39.
She led Liberia's women to defy feared warlords and their use of child soldiers and rape as "a toy of war", inspiring a large group of Christian and Muslim women to wage a sex strike in 2002, refusing to sleep with their husbands until the violence ended.
"African women in this world, women in general, there is this recognition now that we have our say," Gbowee said. "There is no way that anyone can minimise our role anymore."
The third laureate, Tawakkul Karman, is a 32-year-old Yemeni journalist and activist who has braved several stints in prison in her struggle for women's rights, press freedoms and the release of political prisoners in her country.
Karman, youngest Peace Prize winner ever, dedicated her prize to "all the activists of the Arab Spring" -- a reference to the protesters who took to the streets across the Arab world demanding democracy.
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She told AFP her prize was "a victory for the Yemeni revolution and the peaceful character of this revolution."
Karman, the first Arab woman to receive the honour, has become a leading figure in the uprising against Yemen's veteran leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.
She has not left Sanaa's Change Square -- the focal point of demonstrations -- for four months for fear of being hunted by gunmen loyal to the embattled president.
The one note of controversy following the awards was struck by Sirleaf's rival in next Tuesday's Liberian presidential elections, Winston Tubman, after observers said the Nobel could tip the polls in her favour after a tough campaign.
"Madam Sirleaf does not deserve a Nobel peace prize award because she committed violence in this country. This award is unacceptable and undeserving," said Tubman.
Friday's prize announcement was otherwise widely met with enthusiasm.
"Woooooooo hoooooo!" was the reaction of South Africa's Desmond Tutu, who won the prize in 1984, upon hearing Sirleaf had won, adding she "deserves it many times over. She's brought stability to a place that was going to hell."
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon hailed the choice.
"This is wonderful news," he said, adding "This is a testament ot the power of women's leadership ... (and) the vital role that women play in the advancement of peace and security, development, and human rights."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been called the world's most powerful woman, said the prize was a "wise decision," and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch celebrated the focus on woman and their empowerment.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the choice was "an inspiration for women's rights and human progress everywhere," and stressed said the tro were "shining examples of the difference that women can make and the progress they can help achieve when given the opportunity to make decisions about the future of their societies and countries".
The 2011 laureates bring the number of women winners to just 15 in the 110-year history of the Nobel Peace Prize, and they are the first women to take the top honour since recently deceased Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai won in 2004.
Maathai, Sirleaf and Gbowee are the only African women ever to win the Peace Prize.
Thursday's laureates will receive their awards, each consisting of a diploma, a gold medal and a third of the 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.48 million, 1.08 million euros) prize money, at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10.