Background Briefing on the 2012 International Women of Courage Awards and other Women's History Month activities

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official, Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
March 7, 2012

MODERATOR: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining the call. This is [Moderator]. With us today, we have [Senior Administration Official]. As a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to a Senior Administration Official.

Without further ado, I’m going to turn it over to [Senior Administration Official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hello, everybody. I’ll walk you through the plans for tomorrow’s International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony. Secretary Clinton will be presiding over her fourth such ceremony. She will be presenting the awards to 10 extraordinary women from around the world who’ve been selected through a process originating with our embassy, a very competitive process. And these are 10 who have risen to the top, although they represent so many more like them.

Mrs. Obama will be present, as she has been since the beginning of the Obama Administration and this ceremony. And we will also have two very special guests with us, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, two of the three Nobel Peace Laureates from this past year. They, as you will recall, got the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in enhancing peace and security. The work of women in Liberia is well known, and then the current efforts by women in Yemen is what Tawakkol Karman (inaudible).

So they will join the leaders on the stage, and the awards will be presented. The women are extraordinary, as I said. They range from an investigative journalist, to a head of an NGO, to women in the political realm. They are extraordinarily courageous by any measure. They have been persecuted, kidnapped, imprisoned, threatened, raped. Among them, this has occurred. We are fortunate this year because unlike years past, oftentimes the women were not able to leave their countries, either not able to get passports, visas, whatever the issues were that their governments decided to keep them back for. This year, we have all of them, including Burma for the first time. And they are representative of our ongoing recognition of the role women play—a critical role in growing economies and contributing in significant ways to peace and security, to being essential to progress in their countries—and to that end, are important in all of our foreign policy considerations.

And so in a nutshell, that’s what we are going to see tomorrow, and what is represented tomorrow. I can walk through some of the awardees if that’s useful, maybe give you a sampling. It’s not all of them. The awardee from Afghanistan is from Kandahar. She was elected to the Provincial Council there. She owns a radio station where she is focused on enabling women to understand their rights. And she also runs an NGO based on economic empowerment. She has been threatened herself—regularly threatened—but has expressed her commitment to her cause and remains undeterred in the face of the challenges.

The woman from Burma, Zin Mar Aung, is herself still quite young, but she’s recently released from prison, last year I think it was. She spent 11 years in solitary confinement. Today in a discussion on Capitol Hill, she said that she’s often asked why she risked fighting for the peace movement there. She was a youth leader. And she said that she has chosen democracy with no illusions in terms of what it requires. Since she’s been released from prison, she has gotten herself an education, and she is promoting the role of women in politics, working with academic institutions to set up political science courses, and also working with the young people for the election in 2015. So she is heading up several NGOs to promote this work, and is focused on a different future, a democratic future, for Burma.

The woman from Libya, Hana Elhebshi, is actually an architect. She said she didn’t have any interest in politics. She is not an activist by any calculation in her past. But she said when the potential came in her country to have a change in the government, she felt she had no choice but to become engaged. She is, I’m told, a model for solidarity and courage in her country. And she is like so many women in Libya who, for the most part, didn’t see themselves being on the front line, but wound up on the front line in that struggle, and are now eager to help build a different future for their country.

The woman from – excuse me – Saudi Arabia, Samar Badawi, runs an NGO in which she monitors human rights. She herself has challenged some of the restrictions on women’s rights. She challenged the guardianship rule, was determined to marry the man of her choice, as she put it. She was imprisoned for that but released by a royal decree. She has also pressed for women’s electoral participation, both in voting and running for municipal elections. And there has been an announcement in recent months that women will be able to participate in future municipal elections. She has also challenged the driving restrictions, but there is no change in that, at least to this date.

The woman from Sudan, Hawa Abdallah Salih, is from Darfur. She too, did not see herself as an activist-- wasn’t something that she determined for her future life. But living in a village that was set afire and completely destroyed, that forced those circumstances, forced her and her family into a internally displaced persons camp, and a life that was far different and extremely difficult. She has become a rather active voice for the people of her country who are in comparable circumstances, working on human rights -- working for human rights and against abuses and advocating, in particular, for women and children.

And there are others, a major of military – a major in the military police from Brazil who’s done outstanding work in the (inaudible) favelas in the pacification program, where she’s gone up against some of the toughest drug criminals imaginable. She has been kidnapped by them and obviously released. The kind of work that she has been doing has created not just a model program but far better conditions for the people living in those circumstances.

The investigative journalist from Colombia, by any definition, is one gusty human being. She experienced torture and kidnapping for uncovering an arms smuggling network that involved government security forces, those who were in maximum security, paramilitaries and maximum security. As a result, she was repeatedly raped, suffered tremendous sexual abuse, and (inaudible) decided that as part of her writing, she’s with the newspaper El Tiempo, that she would write about comparable – not exactly the same circumstances, but the sexual abuse that thousands of women are enduring in Colombia, and being a voice for them in her writing.

The woman from the Maldives is an activist formerly in government, and she has taken on many areas of discrimination against women that have now been improved. And her (inaudible) focus is on violence against women.

The awardee from Pakistan is from the tribal area, a very, very tough part of Pakistan. She has received several threats because of her work to engage women in political participation. She herself was elected to local office. Others that -- with whom she has worked have been elected as well, and that is not cottoned to by some others in their society, but she goes on not just to do political work, but to do the kind of work that results in investing (inaudible) in her society.

And then the last one is a parliamentarian—recently elected parliamentarian—in the Turkish -- in Turkey’s national assembly -- to Turkey’s national assembly. She is a woman suffering from a physical disability. And as you all know well, this is a – these are circumstances for some in some countries that really reduces them to marginalization, and it’s almost as though they don’t exist. She has struggled for the rights of the disabled. She has become both an international voice and a voice in her own country.

So that, I think, is all of them. I’ve been flipping here. I may have left somebody out, but I think I’ve covered them all.

MODERATOR: Operator, I think at this time we’re ready to go ahead for questions. So if we can go through the procedure for getting questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. Please make sure you unmute your phone and record your name when prompted so I may introduce your question. And if you would like to remove your question, you may press *2. And we’ll take a few moments to see if we have any at this time.

We have a question here from Luis Martinez with ABC News. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for having this briefing for us today. I have a couple questions regarding the award itself. It’s an incredible list of women with great accomplishments and of courage no doubt, but how does this – the award play in their host countries when they return? Does it afford them some kind of protection if they’re under threat, let’s say? And in others – in other cases, does it enhance their reputations? Or in some – in other cases, is it a detriment to them? What kind of feedback have you gotten?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, for the most part, the women embrace it because of what it does for their work. It validates their work at the highest levels of both the United States, obviously, but it also creates for them an international sense of recognition. And they believe – and this has been the case over the years – that this devolves extraordinarily to their work in a positive way. Remember, many of these women, as I said, have been kidnapped, threatened, continue to be threatened. And in some ways, as one said to me once, “It’s my bulletproof vest.” She feels the fact that the international community knew about her work now and that it had been validated at this level, respected and recognized, would protect her more than if she were working alone as she had been, doing important work but now known at all beyond her community.

And most of these women are not well known activists. They may be known in – certainly in their immediate communities and possibly in their countries, but they’re not significant figures either nationally or internationally. So what we most often hear from them is this will help me in my work, and that’s why it’s so appreciated and embraced.

QUESTION: And if I could ask a follow-on, you say that they – most of them aren’t known outside of their specific countries or regions. How did they come to your attention? Who actually selects them for this – for these awards, and what kind of a process is involved?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The process involves our embassies. There’s a criteria that is put out to them and in terms of the kind of work that these women have been doing. It is solely a women’s award, timed to International Women’s Day. The criteria focused around their leadership in doing advocacy work in the political sphere, in civil society, or in other ways that they manifest it, for example in media or through their academic work. And the posts submit those they feel are worthy of this kind of recognition. They themselves go through their own culling process. There are large, large numbers of worthy candidates, and I think to a woman, the women always say, “We know that there are so many more like us, and we know that, yes, we’ve gotten this recognition, but we take it also for so many others who aren’t getting this kind of recognition but doing the hard work.”

So we then go through a process here at the State Department. It is a representative – geographically representative award. So there were a couple candidates from every region, and one from Afghanistan because of, obviously, the continuing focus on the role that women are playing in Afghanistan and the role that they need to continue to play. And it is not an easy process. I can tell you, having been engaged in it myself here, it is very tough to make these decisions. They then go to the respective nominees. A couple of choices go to the bureau chiefs, and in the end, to the Secretary herself. So it is a lengthy process beginning with our embassies.

QUESTION: Okay. Now, [Moderator], if you could oblige me, maybe just one more question. Sorry about that. The First Lady and the Secretary of State, have they met any of these nominees – I mean of these winners during their travels around the world? And any personal impressions that they may have of them already?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think this year the Secretary did meet – I’m not certain of it, but I think she did meet with Zin Mar Aung, the Burmese awardee, when she was on her recent trip to Burma. I don’t think that she has met any of the others.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Operator, do we have any additional questions?

OPERATOR: There are no other questions at this time.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. You can always ask one of us if you have further questions, and we’ll oblige as best we can. Thank you all.

# # #

PRN: 2012/353