Yesterday, people around the world marked the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. Here at the State Department, First Lady Michelle Obama joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to recognize ten remarkable women, recipients of the 2011 International Women of Courage Award. The honorees were:
· Her Excellency, Roza Otunbayeva, President of the Kyrgyz Republic;
· Maria Bashir, Prosecutor General, Herat Province (Afghanistan);
· Nasta Palazhanka, Deputy Chairperson, Malady Front (Young Front) non-governmental organization (Belarus);
· Henriette Ekwe Ebongo, journalist and publisher of Bebela (Cameroon);
· Guo Jianmei, lawyer and Director of the Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling and Service Center (China);
· Yoani Sanchez, Innovator and Blogger, Founder of Generación Y blog (Cuba);
· The Honorable Agnes Osztolykan, Member of Parliament, Politics Can Be Different Party (Hungary);
· Eva Abu Halaweh, Executive Director of Mizan Law Group for Human Rights (Jordan);
· Marisela Morales Ibañez, Deputy Attorney General for Special Investigations against Organized Crime (Mexico);
· Ghulam Sughra, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Marvi Rural Development Organization, (Pakistan).
Two of the honorees, Nasta Palazhanka of Belarus and Yoani Sanchez of Cuba, were not permitted to travel to accept their award in person, but Secretary Clinton paid tribute to them and they were with us in spirit.
These ten women have done heroic work to advance freedom, equality, and dignity for all, in spite of great personal risk to themselves and their families. These women have been harassed and oppressed, and some have been beaten, tortured, and imprisoned. As Secretary Clinton said, "Each of these women...[has] reached down deep and done what was necessary. And I often wonder how many of us, including myself, under those circumstances, could have done the same. Their courage, their compassion, their commitment, their quiet moral authority has come from putting the well-being of others before their own."
If you are not familiar with these ten women, I encourage you to learn more about them and their work. They have inspired me, and I'd like to share some of their biographical information with you.
President Roza Otunbayeva of Kyrgyzstan
First stepping forward as a central figure in the second effort of her country to shed authoritarian rule after the fall of the Soviet Union, Roza Otunbayeva, 60, recently became Central Asia's first female head of state and head of government in a traditional, majority Muslim country. In the face of a collapsing, corrupt government, strong regional divisions and widespread economic stagnation, President Otunbayeva succeeded in binding together a historically fractious opposition into a provisional government structure able to check the struggles for power from stirring up wider divisions in society. Her courageous leadership was instrumental in keeping Kyrgyzstan whole after the June 2010 clashes, staying the course to hold competitive elections.
Maria Bashir of Afghanistan
Prosecutor General, Attorney General's Office, Herat Province
Banned from working during the Taliban regime, Ms. Bashir, 40, served her community by secretly teaching her sisters and local girls at home despite the risks of reprisal. After the fall of the Taliban, Maria Bashir regained her position as an investigative prosecutor, and in 2006 was appointed Prosecutor General for Herat, the only woman to ever hold such a position in Afghan history. Ms. Bashir has waged a determined campaign against crime and corruption. She stands out as a champion of judicial transparency and women's rights, and exemplifies the resilience of Afghan women. In 2010 alone, Ms. Bashir handled 87 cases on behalf of victims of domestic abuse, including forced child marriage.
Henriette Ekwe Ebongo of Cameroon
Journalist, publisher of Bebela, political activist
Regarded as one of the most experienced and influential female journalists in Cameroon, Henriette Ekwe Ebongo, 61, has spent a lifetime advancing press freedom, freedom of expression, human rights, good governance, and gender equality. From the struggle against dictatorship in the 1980s, to the struggle against corruption and injustice in recent years, she has refused to be silenced for standing up for justice and the rule of law. The publisher of Bebela, a weekly independent newspaper, she was instrumental in the founding of a freer and more independent media in Cameroon.
Jianmei Guo of China
Director and Lawyer, Women's Law Studies and Legal Aid Center
Born in an impoverished area of China, Guo Jianmei, 49, rose to graduate from China's Peking University and went on to become the country's best-known female lawyer, a passionate activist, and pioneer of legal advocacy. Ms. Guo enjoyed a fast-track career as a government legal professional. She left her comfortable world to become an advocate for those excluded from access to law in China, founding the Women's Law Center at Peking University.
Agnes Osztolykan of Hungary
Member of Parliament, Politics Can Be Different Party, Lehet Mas a Politika (LMP)
Agnes Osztolykan, 36, was elected to Parliament in 2010, and is the only female Roma Member of Parliament (MP) in Hungary. She represents the newly established party, Politics Can Be Different (LMP). Ms. Osztolykan speaks out for Roma in the face of open hostility, fearlessly advocating for the equal rights and inclusion of Roma in Hungarian society. As deputy chair of the Education Committee, she is making a tangible contribution to Hungary's new education regulations, ensuring that Roma inclusion remains a priority of government programming.
Eva Abu Halaweh of Jordan
Executive Director, Mizan Law Group for Human Rights
As Executive Director of the Mizan Law Group for Human Rights, Ms. Halaweh, 36, has dedicated her career to advocating for the vulnerable people of Jordan, including women at risk of becoming victims of “honor crimes.” She has developed a legal team that provides free legal advice and counseling, often the only option for those seeking justice or a remedy to their plight. She has taken on sensitive issues, including action against what many human rights activists term a “culture of torture and abuse” within Jordan's prison system and police stations, which has resulted in deaths in previous years.
Ghulam Sughra of Pakistan
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Marvi Rural Development Organization
Ghulam Sughra, 40, created the Marvi Rural Development Organization (MRDO), an NGO focused on creating community savings funds and raising awareness of education, health, human rights, and social development issues. While originally focused in her home village, Ms. Sughra has expanded to the rural areas of Sindh, Punjab, and Baluchistan provinces. Born in rural Sindh Province, Ms. Sughra was forced to marry at the age of 12. Six years later, Ms. Sughra became the first woman in her village to divorce, and consequently, became a social outcast. Severely beaten by her brothers when she tried to attend school, she pursued her studies at home. She later succeeded in becoming her village's first female high school graduate and the first teacher at the first school for girls.
Marisela Morales Ibañez of Mexico
Assistant Attorney General for Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime
The first woman ever appointed to the position of Assistant Attorney General for Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO) in 2008, Marisela Morales, 40, has been a leader in bringing to justice some of Mexico's most dangerous and notorious criminals. Her fearless efforts to stand up against corruption have generated confidence in SIEDO among the public at large. Under Ms. Morales' leadership, SIEDO has succeeding in coordinating efforts with the Secretariat of Defense, the Secretariat of the Navy, the Secretariat of Public Security, and the Secretariat of Governance, as well as with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, and the embassies of other governments. Ms. Morales has been instrumental in creating the first Federal Witness Protection Program in Mexico. With her guidance and support, SIEDO indicted the first federal trafficking in persons case. With her oversight, SIEDO and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have cooperated to reunify children of trafficking victims with their mothers in the United States.
Yoani Sanchez of Cuba
Innovator and Blogger, Founder of Generación Y blog
Blogger, technological innovator, and emerging civil society leader Yoani Sanchez, 35, has attracted an international following for her blog, Generacíon Y, which gives readers unprecedented insight into life in Cuba. She has worked to improve the ability of ordinary Cubans to access and disseminate information, and to expand information flow and free expression throughout Cuba. She has been credited as the “founder” of the independent Cuban blogosphere. Her work has expanded beyond blogging to training and advising dozens of newcomers to the blogosphere, providing a voice for young Cubans and for established civil society leaders.
Nasta Palazhanka of Belarus
Deputy Chairperson, Malady Front (Young Front) non-governmental organization
Joining the opposition youth movement in Belarus at the age of 14, Nasta Palazhanka, now 20, has grown into a key figure in the opposition youth group "Malady Front" (Young Front) and exemplifies the extraordinary potential of civil activism in Belarus. Despite threats and politically-motivated pressure and harassment against herself and her family, she continues to advocate for civil society freedoms and promote respect for fundamental human rights. Imprisoned repeatedly for her convictions, she prevails in her belief that a brighter future is possible.
You can learn more about the International Women of Courage here.