About the Authors: Melanne Verveer serves as the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues at the Department of State, and Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow and director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The past year represented some extraordinary moments for women. It began with a revolution in Tahrir Square, where women organized and led historic protests. It ended with a Nobel Peace Prize recognizing three extraordinary leaders who have led women in Liberia and Yemen to reach for democracy and human rights.
2012 is off to its own strong start. In honor of today's International Women's Day, the United States is honoring the unique contributions of women around the world with two special award ceremonies.
Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is hosting the 2012 International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony with special guests First Lady Michelle Obama and two of those three amazing Nobel Prize winners, Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and Tawakkol Karman from Yemen. The prestigious award recognizes women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women's rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk.
Zin Mar Aung -- an activist in Burma jailed for expressing her mind. Jineth Bedoya Lima -- a Colombian journalist shedding a spotlight on atrocities of sexual and gender-based violence. The Honorable Maryam Durani -- a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council in Afghanistan who refused to let death threats deter her from entering the political arena. These women and the six other winners this year are leaders and doers. They hail from every corner of the world, but the challenges are all too alike. Recipients have endured beatings and kidnappings. They have fought to receive an education and to access business loans. But no matter the obstacle, none of them was willing to accept failure.
In addition, tomorrow, Secretary Clinton will announce the recipients of the Secretary's Innovation Award for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. The award seeks to identify and bring to scale innovative ideas that hold the promise of transforming the lives and women and girls around the world. The Award is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation through the Secretary's International Fund for Women and Girls, and awardees are chosen by a panel of experts who are themselves innovators. This year's awardees from India, Kenya and Tanzania represent scalable innovations in the sectors of agriculture, technology, economic empowerment and the "green" economy. This year's jurists included such distinguished leaders and thinkers as Mohammed Yunus, Cherie Blair, Sheryl Sandberg, Beth Brook, and Noeleen Heyzer.
The winning organizations truly represent game-changing innovation.
Kickstart, in Tanzania, is enabling poverty alleviation for women through the MoneyMaker Hip Pump -- a simple irrigation tool that is low-cost, manually powered, light weight, and portable. It allows women farmers to grow high value fruits and vegetables and sell them throughout the year, even in the dry season.
Samasource, based in Kenya, provides women and youth with the skills and resources to deliver in-demand digital services to companies in the United States and abroad. In three years, Samasource has paid more than $1.5 million in real wages to over 2,000 trained workers in places where most people survive on less than $3 a day -- addressing deeper systemic issues within an economy that suffers from the lack of an employed and empowered female workforce.
In India, Chintan has been reducing ecological footprints and increasing environmental justice across the informal sector through green jobs, advocacy, and organizing. It implements grassroots work on the ground, including solid waste handling, plastics recycling, training and organizing wastepickers, and eliminating child labor from recycling.
The women and organizations being honored today and tomorrow are extraordinary, but their perseverance and conviction is indicative of women around the world. They may not be famous or hold fancy titles, but they are leading on the front lines of change in courageous and innovative ways.
The world cannot deny the essential role that women must play in building strong economies, forging peaceful resolutions to conflict, and supporting sustainable communities. A mountain of data affirms that countries closer to closing the gender gap maintain stronger economies.
The fact is that supporting women is not about charity -- it is a smart, strategic decision. In the 21st century, no country can hope to move forward if it is leaving half of its people behind.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears on Isobel Coleman's Democracy in Development blog.