I had the honor and privilege of welcoming recipients of the 2014 Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards to Washington this week. On March 4, Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom and I, along with special guests First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Kerry’s daughter, Dr. Vanessa Kerry, participated in an event the State Department looks forward to every – the International Women of Courage awards ceremony and observance of International Women’s Day. We were all so moved by the ten extraordinary women who Secretary Kerry selected to receive this year’s awards – and who exemplify the countless other women who are doing extraordinary work, often behind the scenes, to make the world a better and more just place. They inspired us with their strength, resilience, energy, and grace. Through their perseverance and commitment to their cause, they help elevate the role of women in their own societies and send a positive message to other women and girls around the world. They have each grappled with different kinds of obstacles and struggles to become agents of change.
These women, who come from various backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, and walks of life--exemplify the many forms that courage can take. They each illustrate how one individual can make a difference—whether by standing against torture in prisons, putting a stop to early and forced marriages, demanding an end to gender-based violence, or tackling other human rights abuses and violations. They are women like Ruslana Lyzhychko of Ukraine, a pop music star who became a civil society activist and leader of Ukraine’s Maidan movement for democratic reform. She refused to be silenced during the political turmoil in her country and used her voice to sing for peace and non-violence.
Others like Dr. Nasrin Oryakhil of Afghanistan are transforming the lives of mothers and rural women who otherwise would not have access to medical attention. A prominent leader in the field of maternal health, Dr. Nasrin founded the first center for obstetric fistula repair in her country and her dedication to promoting the essential role of midwives has led to increased recognition of the profession and the establishment of the Afghan Midwives Association. Another pioneer in the women’s health field, Dr. Maha Al Muneef of Saudi Arabia—a specialist in pediatric infectious disease, is doing groundbreaking work to raise awareness of domestic violence and child abuse in her country. Other women of courage have overcome personal tragedy and emerged stronger and more committed to helping others. This is especially true of Laxmi of India, who at the age of 16 suffered a brutal acid attack. Although it left her face disfigured, she triumphed over this travesty to become the standard bearer in India for the movement to end acid attacks, and continues to bring hope to survivors of gender-based violence.
Roshika Deo, a young political activist from Fiji, embodies the spirit of those who want more women and youth participation in shaping a new democracy and in building a country free from gender-based violence. Her “Be the Change” campaign has inspired a new generation of Fijian women and youth to join in civic action. Guatemalan Justice Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar has taken on some of the most difficult and politically sensitive cases, including the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Barrios’ continues to provide equal access to justice and works to end impunity in Guatemala as the president of one of two of Guatemala’s two High Risk Court Tribunals.
Other women of conviction, like Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, are advocates for the rights of minorities and for tolerance. There are also fearless women like Fatimata Touré of Mali, who during the terrorist occupation of the northern part of her country found the tenacity to channel 22 years of experience advocating for women’s health and rights to take a stance against gender-based violence. The first woman candidate to run for the presidency of Tajikistan, human rights activist Oinikhol Bobonazarova is working to defend the plight of Tajik migrant workers and has done instrumental work with the NGO association “Coalition Against Torture.” Beatrice Mtetwa, Zimbabwe’s most prominent human rights lawyer, says she is just “doing her job” when she decides to defend fellow Zimbabweans in their pursuit of justice and human rights, taking on cases other lawyers have declined for fear of political reprisal.
These remarkable women are leaving their mark. Their service to social justice, equality, and human rights continues to show that despite the gains women have made worldwide, we still need people like Dr. Nasrin, Judge Barrios, and Bishop Rusudan who are willing to push the boundaries. And we need to support others like Laxmi, Roshika, and Ruslana who continue to pioneer the way forward to enable more girls to become the leaders they are meant to be.
About the Author: Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell