Standing Up For Others: When Courage Means Leadership

Posted by Stephenie Foster
March 21, 2016
Afghan women’s rights activist Wazhma Frogh attends a presidential election forum in Kabul, Afghanistan.

For the past 10 years, the State Department has honored women from around the world with the Secretary’s International Women of Courage Award. But courage and gender are just two of many qualities that tie these women together. Another important theme that has emerged is leadership.

Wazhma Frogh, who received the award in 2009, is an inspiring  example of women’s leadership. In addition to her important work on human rights and gender-based violence in Afghanistan, Wazhma has also led conversations on peace and security in her country. From opinion pieces and editorials in the Washington Post to advocacy in Afghan communities, she has raised her voice for peace and inclusion in Afghanistan.

I first met Wazhma when I was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. A colleague and I visited her in her small office, where she was forthright about both her work and the challenges, both physical and political, she faced every day. What has struck me over the years that I have known Wazhma is that she takes on critical issues and speaks her mind. 

To mark the 10th International Women of Courage Award, we’re revisiting the stories of past awardees. Here’s what Wahzma had to say about courage, what it mean to receive the award, and why men are needed to advance gender equality in Afghanistan. 

In a perfect world, women and girls would: be free of any violence and discrimination.

What does courage mean to you? For me, courage is the ability to stand for myself and someone else who can’t stand for herself.

What’s your favorite memory from the International Women of Courage Award ceremony? I remember meeting an old American woman who was part of a fundraising event. She said, "the stories coming from Afghanistan are all about war and killing -- where did this little woman come from who gives us hope?"

What other International Woman of Courage stands out to you from your time in the United States? I continue to engage with Suaad Allami from Iraq. She is a very outstanding and courageous woman and has [worked to end] violence in Iraq for women.

How did the International Women of Courage Award change your work? It brought more responsibility -- but also created lots of expectations.

What’s the secret to getting things done and making progress on the issues that matter to you? It’s about working with men and women – and not just segregating women and declaring men as perpetrators.

What do you think is the biggest barrier to progress? Working with women alone and not working with men to change the social fabrics that create rigid identities for women.

What’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of? Are there any projects you’ve worked on since the award? Working with local women leaders, engaging them in a national peace process that’s grown from 30 women to 189.

Who is your role model? Every woman who dares to stand up -- even though she knows that at times she might stand alone.

What should the next generation of women leaders know about leadership and courage? What can they do to continue your work? Educating themselves -- standing for themselves first and taking responsibility for someone else as well besides themselves

About the author: Stephenie Foster is a Senior Advisor and Counselor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department.

Editor's Note: This blog is part of a series of blogs that will -- surrounding the 2016 International Women of Courage Awards -- explore the insights of courageous women's rights advocates from around the world.


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