2009 International Women of Courage Award Winner Biographies
Hadizatou Mani, Niger
“No woman should suffer the way I did.”
In 1996, when she was 12, Hadizatou Mani was sold for $500. “I was negotiated over like a goat,” she says. Ms. Mani was a slave because her mother was a slave. Her status – and her future, and the future of her children – was attached to her caste. She was purchased by a man in his sixties, who beat her, sent her to work long hours in the field, raped her, and made her bear him three children.
Although Niger criminalized slavery in 2003, Ms. Mani’s master first kept the news from her and later tried to convince village authorities that she was not a slave but one of his wives. When Ms. Mani finally won her “certificate of liberation” in 2005 and married a man of her choosing, her former master charged her with bigamy. She was sentenced to prison for six months.
Ms. Mani worked with the local NGO Timidria, and later with the British NGO Anti-Slavery International, to bring a case to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) charging that the Government of Niger had not successfully protected her rights under its anti-slavery laws.
“It was very difficult to challenge my former master and to speak out when people see you as nothing more than a slave," Ms Mani said in comments published by Anti-Slavery International. "But I knew that this was the only way to protect my child from suffering the same fate as myself. Nobody deserves to be enslaved. We are all equal and deserve to be treated the same ... no woman should suffer the way I did."
Despite direct and indirect pressure to drop her suit, Ms. Mani pressed forward with her case with resolution, assertiveness, and steadfastness. On October 27, 2008, ECOWAS condemned Ms. Mani’s enslavement, held that the government of Niger had not protected her rights, and ordered it to pay her a fine of 10 million CFA (approximately USD 19,800).
Human rights laws are useless if not enforced. Nigerien NGOs such as Timidria had suggested before this verdict that Niger’s anti-slavery laws are a “charm offensive” and were “passed for Westerners.” Ms. Mani’s victory was not only for herself, but for the people still enslaved in Niger. Her bravery is a ray of hope to them, and the ECOWAS court decision is a strong message to the government of Niger and other countries in the region that anti-slavery laws must be more than words on paper.
Ambiga Sreenevasan, Malaysia
“Gender equality is a responsibility of all Malaysians.”
Malaysian Bar Council President Ambiga Sreenevasan is a high-powered, high-profile advocate for good governance, democracy, and human rights.
Elected in March, 2007, Ms. Ambiga is the second female Bar Council president in that organization’s history. Six months after assuming her leadership, she organized the “March for Justice,” in Malaysia’s administrative capital, calling for judicial reform and investigation of a tape allegedly showing a key lawyer fixing judicial appointments and judges’ case assignments. Her public actions, and an intense lobbying campaign, led to a Royal Commission and a finding of need for corrective action.
Ms. Ambiga has also consistently supported the rule of law during her tenure, condemning the politically-motivated arrests of two journalists, and the government’s banning of an ethnic Indian activist group and arrest of its members.
Ms. Ambiga’s most controversial work is in the areas of religious freedom and women’s rights. She has assertively confronted sexism in Parliament, taking her case directly to the public when necessary. “Gender equality is a responsibility of all Malaysians,” she wrote in a press release that protested a politician’s patronizing remarks. She continues to fight for the religious freedom of women who convert to Islam upon marriage. Under current law, these women are not allowed to return to their original religions on dissolution of the marriage, regardless of the reason for its termination.
As a result of her attempts to find legal solutions to issues that continue to generate inter-ethnic tensions and constitutional problems, Ms. Ambiga has received hate mail, death threats, and had a Molotov cocktail thrown at her house. Hundreds of people from religious groups and conservative members of government have protested at the Bar Council building and called for her arrest.
In a country with a potentially volatile religious and ethnic mix, Ms. Ambiga has courageously persevered in seeking answers from within the rule of law, and worked relentlessly and energetically for that legal and governing structure to be made more transparent, accessible, and equitable to all.
Veronika Marchenko, Russia
“We are ready for a long fight in order to make the law prevail.”
Veronika Marchenko started the “Mother’s Right” Foundation in 1990, while she was still a student. She worked out of a small room in downtown Moscow, with one table, one chair, and a telephone.
When her activism brought public attention to hazing in the then-Soviet armed forces, the small foundation became an NGO with a mission of exposing the true circumstances surrounding peacetime deaths in the army. It provided moral and legal support to surviving families and lobbied against corruption in the armed forces.
Ms. Marchenko still presses for the elimination of hazing and bullying, which she claims each year take the lives of up to 3,000 of the men obligated to serve. “The basic postulate from the Soviet era until now says a conscript is a nobody,” Ms. Marchenko told an LA Times reporter. “He’s a cogwheel in a machine, and this cogwheel is a very inexpensive element of that machine which, if it breaks down, can be replaced very easily.”
Because most of these deaths are classified as suicides regardless of additional or contributing factors, these soldiers’ families encounter difficulty in receiving survivors’ entitlements. Ms. Marchenko’s group leads investigations into the circumstances of conscripts’ deaths, often helping to prove that a suicide was actually a provocation to suicide or a murder, bringing accurate information to grieving families as well as a means of support. “When we don’t win quickly,” she told French reporters, “we are ready for a long fight in order to make the law prevail.”
Lawyers from Mother’s Right participated in 132 pro bono litigations in 21 cities across Russia in 2007 alone. That same year, the foundation assisted 5,323 families of servicemen who died during noncombat military service.
The organization led by Ms. Marchenko is an outstanding example of a grass-roots endeavor that began with little more than a commitment to social justice, and evolved into an influential and powerful group. Ms. Marchenko’s courage in defying the pressure of authorities and her perseverance over nearly 20 years allowed this to happen. Today, Mother’s Right is a whistleblower organization that brings public scrutiny of human rights abuses to a large and opaque bureaucracy, giving vindication and sustenance to families and support and improved conditions to young men serving their country.
Reem Al Numery, Yemen
“I thought of ways to set fire to my wedding dress.”
In June 2008, at the start of her school vacation, 12-year-old Reem Al Numery was forced to marry her 30-year-old cousin.
“While my hair was styled for the ceremony, I thought of ways to set fire to my wedding dress,” Reem told Embassy officials in an interview. “When I protested, my dad gagged me and tied me up. After the wedding, I tried to kill myself twice.”
Reem is part of a recent cadre of young Yemeni girls who have defied their families and threats of violence to stand up for their rights. The legal age of consent for girls to marry in Yemen was recently raised to 17, but a combination of tradition and widespread poverty ensure that younger girls are often forced into matrimony in order to relieve economic pressure on their families. Customary practice dictates that the girls’ grooms wait until their bride is post-pubescent to consummate the marriage. This was not the case for Reem. She described to BBC reporters how her husband raped her: when she resisted sex, he choked and bit her and dragged her by the hair, overwhelming her by force.
The activism of Yemeni pre-teens sold into wedlock began with Nujood Al Ahdel, another courageous child, who, at the age of ten, walked out of her forced marriage and successfully initiated divorce proceedings. Her inspiring story focused international attention on the plight of child brides.
Reem Al Numery shares the same lawyer and same circumstances with Nujood Al Ahdel, but faces additional obstacles. Reem’s father will not consent to her divorce, leading the judge to decree that, because she is a minor, she must remain married until she can make her own decisions at age 15. Reem’s lawyer is appealing the verdict, and Reem is currently living with her mother.
Since she is still legally married and since Yemeni law has no provisions for sexual abuse charges within a marriage, this 12-year-old is still at the mercy of her husband and her father. “My dad said he'll kill me for defying him,” Reem told reporters in August 2008, “but I want to go back to school.”
“She told me that she wants to live a normal life, like any other girl her age, and I am afraid that is not possible yet,” Reem’s lawyer told the Yemen Times. “Sometimes she just wants to play and enjoy life like a young girl, and other times she is talking about things like a mature woman who has been married for long. This marriage experience has made her neither a girl nor a woman.”
Yemeni judges, hesitant to grant divorces to pre-teens, have been exposed to international pressure by the cases brought by Al Ahdel and other girls. The personal bravery of Reem Al Numery expands that focus to more complex and difficult cases of enduring paternal complicity, and challenges the Yemeni legal system to put an unequivocal end to this crime that robs girls of their childhood.
Suaad Abbas Salman Allami, Iraq
“A strong and credible advocate…to ensure equality is not only talked about but practiced and upheld.”
In the middle of embattled Sadr City, Suaad Allami runs an NGO called Women For Progress. The NGO manages the Sadr City Women’s Center, a “one-stop shop” for everything from legislative advocacy, vocational training, and domestic violence counseling to medical exams and literacy education and even child care and exercise opportunities.
A practicing lawyer with 16 years’ experience, Ms. Allami works both to strengthen Iraq’s small corps of female legal professionals through programs such as her highly successful Women Lawyers Continuing Education seminars, as well as to make certain that Iraqi Constitutional protections for women translate into day-to-day life. In the words of U.S. Army Colonel George Phelan, the Rule of Law Advisor and Women's Rights Advocate for the Embedded Provincial Reconstruction (EPRT) Team located outside Baghdad, Ms. Allami is “that strong and credible advocate Iraqi women need to ensure that equality is not only talked about but practiced and upheld in ground truth."
Ms. Allami is a highly visible advocate in a political climate in which voicing support for women’s rights is a life-threatening act. She is one of only two women on the 40-person District Council, and has served as Chair of its Women and Children Council since 2004. She’s served on the Baghdad Provincial Council and authored the January 2008 By-Laws for the entire Baghdad Province District and Qada Councils.
She’s also taken a brave and personal stand against corruption, resisting the efforts of a local strongman to extort money from the Women’s Center. She frequently consults with U.S. government and coalition forces, at great personal risk, outside the Green Zone. And when she learned about the extent of alleged human rights abuses at Kadhamiya Women’s Prison, she boldly conducted an unannounced inspection, CNN crew in tow, without regard for the potential for backlash against her. The Minister for Human Rights shut the prison down two months later.
Ms. Allami has expanded her focus beyond the extraordinary Women’s Center she’s created in Sadr City. She won a USD $700,000 grant, which she used to open four additional and extremely popular centers in Baghdad. And she’s submitted proposals that would bring female-taught training and education in internationally-recognized human rights precepts to all Baghdad District Councils and militia-age males in the city.
Rather than urge international engagement from the relative safety of a neighboring country, Ms. Allami made a brave commitment to remain in her homeland. Because of her work, Iraqi women are not only healthier and safer, but have the means to change their lives and their communities.
Mutabar Tadjibayeva, Uzbekistan
“They can break my body, but they can never break my spirit.”
Mutabar Tadjibayeva is one of the most vocal activists in Uzbekistan, a country in which human rights issues remain a serious concern. As Chair of her own NGO, the Fiery Hearts Club, Ms. Tadjibayeva has brought attention to human rights issues in the Ferghana Valley – one of the most sensitive regions of Central Asia – and helped people seek justice. She has monitored trials, published articles on child labor, reported on violations of women’s rights, and organized public campaigns. In August 2003, Ms. Tadjibayeva suffered serious head injuries and was hospitalized for more than a week after a demonstration she organized demanding the resignation of a corrupt local prosecutor was forcibly dispersed by police.
In October 2005, Ms. Tadjibayeva was arrested at her home as she was preparing to travel to Ireland for a human rights conference and charged with several counts of criminal activity based on her activism. Despite the threat of a long prison sentence, Ms. Tadjibayeva remained defiant and told the court, “I do not regret my activities and I will continue them regardless of the verdict.” In March 2006, she was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. Ms. Tadjibayeva’s health suffered as a result of poor prison conditions, and she was subjected to forced psychiatric treatment and long periods of solitary confinement.
In June 2008, Ms. Tadjibayeva was released from prison on medical grounds, though she remains under a three-year suspended sentence. Despite the suffering she’s endured, and at substantial risk to herself, Ms. Tadjibayeva has renewed her activism since her release and is in the process of trying to register the Fiery Hearts group with local authorities. She continues to criticize prison conditions during interviews with independent and international journalists. At the same time, she continues to seek constructive dialogue with authorities on human rights issues.
While Ms. Tadjibayeva has paid a tremendous personal price for her defense of others, she has shown no regrets for her continued activism. Her astonishing courage is a force for transparency, democracy, and good governance in Uzbekistan as well as a larger example of the power of an individual to take a stand and marshal international support for the cause of human rights. As she commented shortly after her release…“they can break my body, but they can never break my spirit.”
Wazhma Frogh, Afghanistan
“My goal is to really represent Islam. It’s not a religion that oppresses women.”
Wazhma Frogh believes in changing systems from within, and is willing to stake a lot on her beliefs. In 2002, when she visited a conservative district in northeastern Afghanistan, the activist overheard the local mullah urging male worshippers to stop her plans to start a literacy program for women. Ms. Frogh marched into the mosque, she told a Christian Science Monitor reporter, and challenged the mullah to hear her out. She recited a number of Koranic passages that supported education, and she decried the use of Islam to justify domestic violence and child marriage. The mullah listened, and then endorsed her plans to start the literacy program.
Ms. Frogh uses her scholarly knowledge of Islam to convince religious leaders to modify their views of women – views, she claims, that are often rooted more in provincial local traditions than in the real essence of the faith. "My goal is to really represent Islam,” she told the Christian Science Monitor. “It's not a religion that oppresses women."
Her activism began at a young age. In the eighth grade, she offered tutoring to her landlord’s children in exchange for reduced rent, so as to ensure that she and her sisters would be able to continue school. At age 17, she used her internship at a prestigious Pakistani newspaper to expose poor living conditions and abuses of women’s rights in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
Ms. Frogh currently works as the Afghanistan Country Director for Global Rights, an international human rights organization. She’s launched public debates on domestic violence and marital rape in Afghanistan, both previously unmentionable topics in her country. She persuaded mullahs to join her in a month-long campaign of speaking out against domestic violence, and, by mobilizing a group of over 35 civil society organizations, convinced the government of Afghanistan to take action against child rape. Ms. Frogh also provides training to policewomen on issues surrounding domestic violence and child abuse.
Wazhma Frogh’s bold outspokenness for women, children, and social justice makes her a target in her conservative and volatile society. Her bravery creates safety for those whom the laws make vulnerable, and her commitment to peaceful change through the force of her intellect and persuasive skills creates both opportunity and inspiration for other women to do the same.
Norma Cruz, Guatemala
“We’re not going to allow one more woman to die.”
In Guatemala, an average of two women each day die a violent and often grisly death. The number is increasing, and has more than doubled since 2000. While murders of men are also increasing, the killings of women are particularly gruesome, often involving rape, torture, mutilation, and dismemberment.
Norma Cruz, co-founder and director of the NGO “Survivors Foundation,” has provided emotional, social, and legal support to hundreds of victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse and to the families of murdered women. In 2007 alone, her foundation helped investigate, prosecute, and convict 30 individuals accused of murdering women. The NGO also runs a victims’ shelter – one of only a handful in the country -- and also fights to protect mothers whose babies are allegedly stolen for an illegal and lucrative supply chain for international adoptions.
The increasing number of killings of women in Guatemala, Ms. Cruz says, is tied both to the poverty that is the aftermath of Guatemala’s civil war and to narcotrafficking. Gangsters reportedly kill the female family members of rival gangs, often as an initiation rite, and without fear of legal retribution. These crimes are under-reported and under-investigated, and less than three percent are prosecuted. The more common police response, according to a former member of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s delegation, is to assert that the victim must have been a prostitute or a gang member, have engaged in other criminal activities, or have provoked the killer with her infidelity.
Because of the pressure of groups like the Survivors Foundation, the UN-led International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was approved by the Guatemalan Congress in August, 2008. Although it is too early to gauge the effect of the Commission, it has the potential to be an important tool in combating the gender-based targeted killing of women.
These advances come at enormous personal risk to both the activists and their families. But, Ms. Cruz told the Human Rights Commission delegate, “We’re not going to allow one more woman to die.”
Ms. Cruz was recently the subject of an urgent Amnesty International appeal, after one of her relatives was abducted and assaulted in what appeared to be an attack aimed at intimidating her and the foundation. She herself has received numerous death threats, and her home and office have been surveilled.
Ms. Cruz’ courageous commitment to the Survivors Foundation despite these risks has given voice to hundreds of victims, generated positive change, and inspired other groups and individuals, within the country and outside, to work to turn the tide of violence and impunity in Guatemala.