Remarks at the International Women of Courage Ceremony

Catherine M. Russell
   Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Heather Higginbottom
   Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources 
Ms. Nadia Sharmeen
Washington, DC
March 6, 2015

STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 2015 International Women of Courage award recipients, the Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, and Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Well, welcome, everybody. We’re so happy this is finally happening for many reasons, mostly because of the crazy snow. But we’re really delighted that everyone could make it today. Thank you so much for being here. This is such a special day for us, and we’re delighted to be able to share it with all of you here today.

I want to thank all the dignitaries who are here today. I also want to make a special thank you here to the protocol folks who work at the State Department, who really – (applause) – you can imagine that these are not easy events to put together, and to do it twice in two days is really – (laughter) – really something. And just a note for scheduling: We are 100 percent doing this later in the month next year, because this is the second year in a row – (laughter) – yeah, exactly. It’s taking years off everyone’s lives, so we have to just fix this.

So we are here. It’s a very special day, as you can see. We’re here to celebrate the 2015 recipients of the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award. This is an amazing group of women who demonstrate the important role women play in changing their communities and their countries for the better. And let me just take one minute to talk about the process. We have embassies around the world, obviously, who are working day in and day out with women, their communities, who understand the challenges and the important work that women are doing. Every year, they nominate candidates. It goes through a long process, because this is the State Department, where we have many meetings about trying to think through how we can best winnow down an amazing group of candidates. And what you’re seeing here today are ten women – well, you’re actually seeing nine, because one had to leave already to get back to do some peace negotiations in CAR – but this is an amazing group who really represent as best we could all of the great work that women are doing around the world.

This award was established in 2007. It honors women around the globe who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership. Over the years, we’ve recognized champions who advocate for human rights, leaders who advance equality for women and girls, and activists who work tirelessly for social progress, often at great personal risk.

Some of you were with us at the White House earlier this week when the President and Mrs. Obama announced that the Administration will focus greater attention and resources on adolescent girls through the Let Girls Learn initiative. The First Lady, who we really wanted to be with us and was scheduled to be here yesterday, unfortunately can’t be here today, but we’re hoping that we can find some time for her to meet with these nominees. Her commitment to making sure that girls around the world have the opportunity for education and all the possibilities that come with that will make it possible for more girls to become leaders like these women who are here with us today.

So for every girl who is married too young; who is beaten, abused, sold, or deprived of an education, we send this message: We are dedicated to seeing that you have the opportunities that you deserve. And like the amazing women of courage who are here today, any girl can be the one who works for peace, who cares for the sick, who changes laws and outdated notions of gender, who fearlessly confronts extremism, or who pilots a plane. Any girl can be the one who becomes a woman of courage.

It’s now my pleasure to introduce an extraordinary woman, a great colleague and a friend, who works every day to make sure that at every level in the State Department from the bottom to the top, our diplomacy promotes the rights and opportunities for women and girls. Please join me in welcoming Deputy Secretary Higginbottom. (Applause.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGGINBOTTOM: Thank you, Cathy, and welcome, everyone. I’m also very sorry that the First Lady isn’t able to join us today, but she is certainly here in spirit as a tremendous supporter of the International Women of Courage Awards. And the First Lady is a role model for women and girls everywhere, who can look to her and know that they can be strong, confident, fierce women who are capable of anything that they set their minds to.

Secretary Kerry is also very sorry he can’t be here today. He’s traveling. But I can assure you that he firmly believes in the empowerment and equality of women as critical to making our world stronger, more prosperous, and more peaceful.

Each year, we take this occasion to celebrate women who build peace, prosperity, and stability. And just a couple of days ago here at the State Department, Congressman John Lewis talked about how his role in the Civil Rights Movement was inspired by Rosa Parks’s peaceful protest and civil disobedience. And on this 50th anniversary of the March in Selma, it’s uplifting to think that Congressman Lewis, a Civil Rights hero who helped changed the course of history in this country, was inspired by the actions of a woman, not unlike those on the stage beside me today.

We celebrate brave and heroic women who are changing their countries and this world. The journalist who writes stories about exposing corruption; the activist who stands tall for her beliefs, despite harassment; the pilot who flies not just for herself or her country but the promise of new horizons for women everywhere – these are the true faces of courage.

These honorees demonstrate to us what is possible when women stand up for their rights and freedoms, but they also demonstrate that we have a long road still to travel to achieve justice and equality for all. There is not a single country, including the United States, that has achieved full gender equality. Earlier this week at an event to mark International Women’s Day, former president of Malawi, Dr. Joyce Banda, issued a call to action in realizing gender equality. She said, “After all, we’re 50 percent of the population and we brought the other 50 percent into this world.” (Laughter.) When the voices of women and girls are silenced, when their health and safety are neglected, when they are denied an education, then their potential is wasted.

Gender inequality results in lost potential. It’s the difference between instability and peace, extremism and moderation, poverty and prosperity. These issues are all interconnected. When a woman can’t sell her wares at the market, she is robbed of her industry. When a mother-to-be doesn’t live through childbirth, a new generation is robbed of a family. When a young woman becomes infected with HIV/AIDS, she faces the threat of her entire future. When a girl is denied an education, her country loses out on her contributions. And when she is denied a vote, we are all robbed of a leader and a citizen.

If we are to address and meet our most pressing global challenges, we must include women and girls as full and equal partners in our efforts – women like the nine here on the stage, and 10 in total, we are honoring today. So it is now my distinct honor to present the 2015 International Women of Courage awards to these women, whose stories are both heartbreaking and inspiring. And I’m going to endeavor to do this without choking up, though I warn you it’s very hard and I didn’t manage it last year.

When Majd Chourbaji was arrested by the Assad regime in Damascus, she knew exactly what lay ahead. She had been a longtime activist for the rights of prisoners in her hometown of Darayya, Syria. So Majd had heard the gut-wrenching stories of captivity, deprivation, even torture. And yet nothing could deter Majd, even after she was arrested. She continued her work from behind bars. She held workshops on peace-building and citizenship; she organized 150 of her fellow prisoners to go on strike to demand due process and an appearance before a judge. And she prevailed. Eighty-three women were released from prison. When asked why she continued to fight for this cause, she said: “Weapons and arms can take down a dictator, but they can’t build a country.” In the end, it is the work of women like Majd that truly build a country and she is proving that every day through her current work to help Syrian women take on leadership roles in their communities and fully participate in peace-building efforts at the local and national level.

For her persistence in championing the rights of political prisoners and efforts to ensure Syrian women are meaningfully included in resolving conflict, we honor Majd Chourbaji as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

And we’re just getting started. As the director of the Gender Equality Network in Burma, a coalition of more than 90 organizations collaborating to advocate for women’s rights, May Sabe Phyu is leading civil society efforts to end discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities. So when violence gripped her nation in 2011, May Sabe Phyu was there to rebuild the peace. She cofounded the Kachin Peace Network and the Kachin Women Peace Network to raise awareness of the human cost of conflict and to advocate for peace and reconciliation. And she insisted that women play a role in rebuilding after conflict subsided. For her efforts, she faced criminal charges, harassment, and fines. She weathered a stream of threats on a daily basis. But as Burma moves forward, slowly opening its doors to the world, women like May Sabe Phyu are there making sure their nation doesn’t turn back.

For her leadership in advocating for the full and equal rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities in Burma, we honor May Sabe Phyu as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Captain Niloofar Rahmani was only 18 years old when the Afghan air force began recruiting women for pilot training. Two years later, she graduated flight school. Niloofar is now the first woman in her nation’s history to earn her flying wings on a fixed-wing plane. Afghans and people all around the world swelled with pride at her accomplishments, but many, including the Taliban and some members of her own extended family, were incensed. Niloofar received death threats and was forced to relocate several times. But she will not be intimidated and she will not be silenced. Niloofar is as committed to encouraging other young women to follow in her footsteps now as she was as an 18-year-old dreaming of flight school. For her bravery in the face of threats of violence and commitment to an inclusive future for Afghanistan’s women and girls, we honor Captain Rahmani as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Chaos reigned when Seleka rebels stormed the streets of Bangui and overtook the Central African Republic’s capital. They killed indiscriminately, ravaged holy places, and recruited young boys to carry out their acts of depravity. One of the rebels’ first stops was the office of Beatrice Epaye, an outspoken activist who raised her voice to condemn the horrors of civil war. Despite the rebels’ ruthlessness, Beatrice would not be intimidated. She took to the radio, she called meetings with local and international organizations, and she became president of the Preparatory Committee for the National Dialogue, all in the name of peace, human rights, and good governance. And if that weren’t enough, she also works through her foundation to find safe haven for abandoned children seeking shelter from those who would prefer they carry a rifle rather than a book.

Unfortunately, Beatrice is not able to join us. She had to catch her return flight to Bangui earlier today, as Cathy mentioned, but we are honored that she was able to join us in Washington for a few days. And I’m pleased that we were able to present her with her award before she left. For her dedication to peace and reconciliation and protecting the most vulnerable, we honor Beatrice Epaye as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

In Kosovo, where might once claimed to make right, Arbana Xharra dedicated her career as a journalist to exposing corruption, shedding light on graft, and changing society peacefully and without strife. Arbana has reported on religious extremism, linking local imams and NGOs with foreign terrorist organizations. Her words have prompted the government to address problems from extremism to corruption. Like other women on this stage today, Arbana faced death threats for her work. But as editor-in-chief of one of Kosovo’s leading daily newspapers, Arbana still pursues stories wherever they lead, despite its peril, while passing on her legacy to the next generation of writers.

For her unwavering pursuit of truth in the fight against violent extremism, we honor Arbana Xharra as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Nadia Sharmeen is a journalist and fierce women’s rights activist. She had wanted to be a journalist since middle school, so it was not surprising when she joined the Bangladeshi press corps. Two years ago, Nadia was assigned to cover a rally on the streets of Dhaka organized by fundamentalist organizations whose platform called for putting a ban on men and women mixing in public. Nadia worked this event despite the hostile crowd and its platform of hate. But the respect she showed them wasn’t returned. Verbal lashes turned into violence as a crowd beat and kicked her. Nadia was nearly killed.

Some say that a writer is only as good as their editor. The opposite can also be true. Nadia’s editors refused to cover her medical expenses and forced her to resign. Nadia could have turned her press credentials in, but she didn’t. Today, she is back on her feet, working the crime beat for a different TV station. She has even returned to covering conservative rallies, undaunted by those who would rather see her battered and bruised than on the airwaves.

For her bravery in the face of condemnation, threats, and physical violence, we honor Nadia Sharmeen as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Tabassum Adnan has been subject to unspeakable horrors. Born and raised in [Pakistan’s]* Swat Valley, Tabassum was married when she was just 13. For 20 years, she suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of her husband, but when Tabassum mustered the courage to divorce him, she lost everything – her children, her home, and her family’s money. She was at her lowest point, and many thought she might break.

But instead, she did the opposite. She found strength and started the Khwendo Jirga, or Sisters Council. Khwendo Jirga is the first-ever women-only jirga that meets weekly to stop so-called honor killings, acid attacks, and swara, the act of trading women to resolve disputes. Tabassum’s jirga has become such a force for progress that she was recently invited to join the grand male jirga in prosecuting a case of child rape. It was the first time in Pashtun history that a woman was asked to participate.

For her tenacity and strength in advocating for the rights of women and girls to lead full, safe, and equal lives in the Swat Valley, we honor Tabassum Adnan as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Rosa Julieta Montano Salvatierra has spent her entire life making sure the women of Bolivia have a place to turn when justice seems distant or impossible. Born into poverty, Julieta worked hard to earn her education. But during Bolivia’s dictatorship era, justice and opportunity were denied to Julieta and average Bolivians. So Julieta fought for her rights as a founding member of Bolivia’s independent civil society, and as a woman.

Today, Julieta leads an organization that fights for a different kind – that fights a different kind of oppression. She has provided legal aid to more than 30,000 survivors of rape, sexual assault, or domestic abuse. Julieta has had a hand in every piece of legislation that advances women’s rights in the last 30 years, including stricter penalties for rape, greater protection for reproductive rights, and advanced gender equality laws.

Today, Bolivia’s legislative assembly has some of the highest representation by women in the world, and we have Julieta to thank for paving the way. For her contributions to the legal protection of women’s rights and security in Bolivia, we honor Rosa Julieta Montano Salvatierra as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Marie Claire Tchecola grew up in a small Guinean village. She could have been a doctor if she wanted, but she chose to be a nurse because, in her own words, “You can touch more people as a nurse.” As the scourge of Ebola struck Guinea, however, that generous spirit almost became her undoing. When a patient arrived at Conakry’s Donka Hospital with a fever and Marie Claire tended to them, she contracted Ebola too. But instead of falling prey to mistrust and superstition, Marie Claire checked herself into a treatment center. Miraculously, she survived. In the simple act of seeking help, she saved her loved ones from the deadly disease.

Unfortunately, her ordeal did not subside with her fever. Her friends shunned her. Her landlord evicted her. She watched the fear of infection contort once-friendly faces. Now, Marie Claire is back at work and is a passionate speaker about the harmful effects of the stigma that plagues Ebola sufferers and survivors.

For her unwavering advocacy for the prevention of Ebola and protection of its survivors, we honor Marie Claire Tchecola as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

In many Japanese workplaces, pregnant women are pressured to resign by their colleagues in what is called matahara, or maternity harassment. Sayaka Osakabe experienced this harassment, and as a result, suffered two miscarriages. Since then, she has given her life’s work to making sure no woman is pressured to choose her health and family over her career. Sayaka pursued legal recourse, and by founding the Matahara Network, she’s helped other women who have experienced the same thing. Last year, Sayaka helped win a landmark judgment in front of the Japanese supreme court. And today, the Japanese Government has declared that dismissing a woman solely because she is pregnant is illegal.

In addition to sparking legal change, Sayaka has sparked cultural change as well. She’s transformed the conversation around women’s roles in the workforce. Sayaka notes that this is the tip of an iceberg. Her true goal is to change the working environment for all workers in Japan.

For standing strong against discrimination and sparking reforms to enable women’s full participation in Japan’s economy, we honor Sayaka Osakabe as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

I’m glad we don’t have a word for that kind of harassment here, but it does happen.

These ten women are an inspiration to me and to so many around the world, and, I know, all of you in this room. They are leaders and role models. So I want to leave you with one last story today. Last year, a young woman from India who was honored in this ceremony, named Laxmi, recited a poem. Laxmi was the victim of a brutal acid attack that left her face burned and scarred. She stood here and told the world that Thursdays would always remind her of her attacker. But despite her injuries, despite the pain suffered and the scars both visible and invisible, she would live her entire life as a testament. “You will know that I am alive,” she said, “free and thriving and living my dreams.”

These ten women are alive, they are free, and they are all living their dreams. And we admire them for their strength. So please join me, one more round of applause for these extraordinary women. (Applause.)

Now it is my privilege to introduce Nadia Sharmeen, who will accept the awards on behalf of the group. (Applause.)

MS. SHARMEEN: Well, I am excited. Good afternoon. Thank you all for giving me this wonderful opportunity to join this awards ceremony being one of the outstanding and courageous women sitting over there and say something on their behalf.

I really feel so proud to be a part of this program and get this prestigious award. I have a lot more person to thank: my mother, the most courageous person in my eyes; my sister, the second courageous person in my eyes; Montia Pu (ph), Sherma Pu (ph), Babul Hai (ph), Bidhr Hai (ph), Shakheel Hai (ph), a lot more person. I can’t even recall all the names. But everyone who believed that I can do something, I can prove myself, and of course, everyone who didn’t believe in me because it’s because of them who why I am here. To prove them wrong I am here.

International Women of Courage Award. Sounds heavy and serious. Well, it is heavy. It is heavy indeed. This award reminded us that we have much more to do for our society, for the peace of the world, and of course, for advancing the right of the women. And for the long struggle we have to go through, this award is just a beginning, not the end, of course.

If I would like to introduce myself, I would say I am a dreamer. But the difference between the other dreamer and me is that I keep my eyes open while dreaming. (Laughter.) I work hard, face challenges, go through a lot of difficulties and obstacles to make my dream come true, and I believe every awardee we see there are just like me, who struggled their whole life just to accomplish their goal, just to serve the society.

For all the women who are listening to me, I want to say something for them. This award you see here, it’s not for only us. This award is for all of you. I know from east to west, south to north, everywhere in this world there is a Nadia Sharmeen living in every houses. We don’t recognize them; we don’t support them. But in spite of not giving support to them, they are struggling, and hats off to them, they are the courageous one. We are just a representative of them.

I just want to say just believe in yourself, believe that being a woman is not a curse but an asset to our society, and make others believe so. Of course, it’s not as easy as I say. But you know something? It’s not always necessary that you accomplish all your goals. Every dream won’t, you see, come true. But the thing that is important is never to give up, cross the finishing line, end up what you have started – not raising voice, not taking steps against the (inaudible). Oppression, discrimination cannot be the solution, because being afraid can never be the solution. You never know what will happen tomorrow, so why ruin today?

Despite of intense criticism, constant threats and dangers, we have to win the battle of truth and justice and establish our rights. It’s true that the mentor, the person who starts the battle suffers the most, so we being the women in front of the row against all the injustice struggled a lot and also suffered a lot. But we know if we give up, the people who are following us, they will also give up, and it cannot be a good example so we cannot let them be demoralized.

So today we would like to promise you all that we continue our battle against every injustice and every step that takes us away from the peace of the world, and even at the cost of our life. Although before coming here we were alone, but now we know we’re not alone. We have a lot of women like us all around the world. And here, as we see, together we can be a great force that can bring justice, end the violence, and change the world. So let’s get together, step forward, create a better world. Let’s create a revolution, a new revolution. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Thank you so much. You can see what a privilege it is for us every day to work with women like this around the world. And as Nadia said, we stand with you and we stand behind you as you do amazingly courageous things, and we are so grateful for what you’re doing. And thank you all so much for being here. On behalf of Deputy Secretary Higginbottom, we’re so grateful to have you here.

I think we’re going to take a moment and do a picture, so if everyone can hold for half a second, I apologize for that. And then please enjoy the reception. Again, thank you so much. (Applause.)