Remarks at the International Women of Courage Awards

Catherine M. Russell
   Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Heather Higginbottom
   Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources 
Dr. Vanessa Kerry, First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama
Washington, DC
March 4, 2014

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Good morning, everyone. Mrs. Obama, Deputy Secretary Higginbottom, all of your excellencies with us today, distinguished guests, it’s my pleasure to welcome all of you to the Department of State for the eighth annual presentation of the Secretary of State’s International Woman of Courage Awards. We’re delighted to have you here today to celebrate the 103th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which we mark every year by recognizing women who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk.

Secretary Kerry, unfortunately, is unable to join us today, because the President asked him to travel to the Ukraine, but he asked two very important people to represent him here, and we are so grateful to have them. The first is Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, who, along with the First Lady, will recognize our amazing women of courage. And the second is Dr. Vanessa Kerry, who is the cofounder and CEO of Seed Global Health, which is an NGO working in collaboration with the Peace Corps to improve healthcare in resource-limited countries. Dr. Kerry, we’re so happy to have you here to offer your thoughts on what investing in women and girls means to you and to your father. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

DR. KERRY: Thank you so much for letting me join you today. I’m a poor substitute for my father, and I – he deeply regrets that he can’t be here. But I personally am very, very delighted to be able to play a small part in honoring these inspiring women with you all. I’m also incredibly honored that my father asked me to be included, because I know this an event that he really deeply appreciates. After his first International Women of Courage Award event last year, he was really looking forward to being back here to celebrate another group of extraordinary women with extraordinary women, like our own First Lady. And unfortunately – well, for many reasons, unfortunately – my father is in Kiev, trying to hopefully help avert what is a growing disaster.

My father, though, would be the first to tell you that he’s had the great honor of being surrounded by remarkably strong women throughout his life, really actually from the moment he was born. His first memory, he would tell you, is actually of holding hands with his mother, my grandmother, when he was just four years old, basically walking through what were the ruins of her family home in a small village in France. The home had been completely destroyed by the ravages of the war, and my grandmother actually had escaped on a bicycle the day before the Nazis invaded. She made her way through France, Spain, to Portugal, where she boarded a ship and came to the United States.

My grandmother, though, was just one of many strong women who have influenced my father’s life. He’d seen similar resolve in his sister, Peggy, who’s dedicated her career to working on women’s issues with the UN. And he’s experienced the fearless dedication to education of his sister Diana, who has taught in many parts of the world, including here at home, and in not always the calmest places. And he’s seen it in the countless women he’s met over the course of his career, women like Aung San Suu Kyi, who he visited a little over 15 years ago when she was still imprisoned in her own home, or Hassina Syed, a remarkable woman that he met last year in Afghanistan. Hassina actually started a trucking company over 10 years ago with just about $500. She now has over 500 trucks, 650 employees, and over 300 of them are women, women who would not have had the opportunities they do today, even just a short time ago.

All of these women have had a profound impact on my father’s life, and that’s why advancing the rights of women and girls has been a priority for him throughout his career, and it’s why it remains a priority for him today, whether he’s here with us in this room or is in Kiev.

It’s reflected deeply in how he’s raised my sister and me to believe that we could do anything. I knew from the time that I was in third grade that I wanted to be a doctor. I was that completely nerdy kid, and there’s photos of me wearing fake glasses and walking around with a microscope. But it wasn’t until I was 14 and my father took me to Vietnam that I knew I actually wanted to work in global health. On that trip, I saw poverty in a whole different light. Much of the population lived in very rural settings with no transportation, no access to hospitals, no stores, no shoes. Electricity and running water were scarce. Most of the homes, the health clinics, were just these concrete blocks with nothing more than thin wisps of cloth that served as doors.

That experience just changed my life. It’s why after my residency at the Mass General Hospital, I ended up founding Seed Global Health. It’s a nonprofit that partners with the Peace Corps to send health professionals abroad for a minimum of a year to provide not only critical health services but to teach in underserved regions like Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Access to healthcare is important for everyone around the globe, but it is especially important for women. Every day about 800 women and 8,000 newborns die due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. And the vast majority of these maternal and neonatal mortalities occur in resource-limited settings around the world, including here in our own country. The risk to women’s health has additional affects on a household and a community.

Evidence actually shows that if you can invest just five dollars per person per year in 74 countries around the world – and these are the 74 countries where 95 percent of the maternal and child mortality occur, just five dollars – you can see nine times the economic and social benefit by the year 2035. Evidence also tells us that children who lose their mother are more likely to die before the age of two than those who don’t. And if they do survive, they’re more likely to be socially and economically disadvantaged for the rest of their lives.

I’m incredibly proud to say that Seeds volunteers, their doctors and nurses, are working hard every day to provide more women with reliable healthcare that they need, but also to teach others to do so as well.

I want to close by telling you about one of those volunteers. She’s a remarkable woman named Maureen, who about nine months ago went to northern Tanzania to teach obstetrics and gynecology. On her first day on the job, just hours after she arrived, amid unpacked boxes, unpacked suitcases, she was – she didn’t even – at this point, she didn’t even know the names of the people she was working with. She got summoned urgently to an operating room. She walked in the room, she saw a mother lying – basically a mother on the table lying there, effectively dying. And being called to the operation late, she lost the mother and she lost both babies; they were twins. She was completely devastated by this experience. We were devastated, and we just read about it.

But she didn’t give up, because the next day she was back in that operating theater, this time saving the life of a mother with five children who had come in with a ruptured uterus because she’d been in labor for two days without healthcare. But this time, Maureen actually changed the course of a life that day. She also laid the cornerstone to save many more, by teaching her Tanzanian coworkers the lifesaving procedure that she had just preformed.

If we want to create a more just and livable world, we need more women like Maureen and her colleagues. We need more women of courage. And that is why I am so honored to be here today with more women like that, with incredible courage, who I’m happy and thrilled to be able to celebrate with all of you here on this stage. Your example is showing all of us what courage means. And your efforts are opening doors for countless women of courage to come. And I know I speak for my father as well and for countless women around the world when I say thank you. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Thank you very much, Vanessa. I know how much it means to your father that you are here and I know how sorry he is to miss this because everyone loves this event so much. It’s one of the favorites in our office and across the State Department, so thank you so much for doing that.

So like the people of America and people all over this world, I have had the great, great privilege of getting to know our First Lady over the last five years. She truly embodies the best of America – determination, courage, persistence, humor, of course, and great compassion. And she deploys not only her great talents but her huge, huge heart on behalf of all of us, especially our military families and our children. She touches the lives of so many, whether in auditoriums like this with thousands of people or in one-on-one settings such as the mentoring program she established at the White House.

She is the daughter of a great woman and the mother of two extraordinary young women who will undoubtedly follow her example of making the world a kinder, more just place. Please join me in welcoming a woman who inspires people, especially the women and girls I meet all around the world who always ask me about her, First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama. (Applause.)

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you all. Well, good morning. I want to start by thanking my dear friend, Ambassador Russell, for that very kind introduction and for her phenomenal work as our Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. And while I know how disappointed Secretary Kerry is to miss this event – by the way, in his busy schedule, he tried to call me five times to apologize. (Laughter.) And finally, I had to tell him, “I know why you can’t make it.” (Laughter.) “Stop calling. Just do your job.” He – I know how heartbroken he is, but we all know that he is doing vitally important work right now in Ukraine and we are all so grateful for his outstanding service as our Secretary of State.

And in his absence, we are thrilled to have Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom and Dr. Vanessa Kerry, and I also want to recognize their efforts and I am thrilled that they are here today. And finally, I want to thank all of you for joining us today for the International Women of Courage Awards.

This is the sixth time that I’ve had the pleasure of attending this event, and it is one of the highlights of my year because I always walk away feeling inspired by these women, determined to reflect their courage in my own life. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling because every day, with every life they touch and every spirit they raise, these women are creating ripples that stretch across the globe. They teach us that if a woman can fight torture and oppression and get her name on the ballot in Tajikistan, if she can break a glass ceiling and advocate for equality and tolerance as a bishop in Georgia, if she can go door to door, police station to police station, court to court to combat domestic and child abuse in Saudi Arabia – if these women can do all of that, then surely we can summon a fraction of their bravery in our own lives and communities, whether that means ending wage discrimination in the workplace or fighting sexual violence on college campuses or confronting any of the small injustices that we see every day.

That is what this day is about. It’s about understanding that while our circumstances may be different in so many ways, the solutions to our struggles are the same. So when we see these women raise their voices and move their feet and empower others to create change, we need to realize that each of us has that same power and that same obligation. And as I learned about this year’s honorees and I thought about how we could support their work, I realized that for most of these women, there is a common foundation for their efforts. It’s a foundation of education.

On stage today, we have doctors and lawyers, we have a bishop, even a classically trained musician. These women have spent years in schools and universities equipping themselves with the knowledge and skills they now use to tackle the challenges before them. And that’s a story I can relate to because it’s the story of my life. And that is the message I’m sharing with young people across America, urging them to commit to their education so that they too can write their own destiny. That’s the core idea behind our White House leadership and mentoring program.

And we are so proud to have some our mentees here with us today. I’m going to embarrass you all. Yes, you must stand – (laughter) – so that we can see you, our young women who are here today. (Applause.) You know I’m always proud of you and it’s important, as you know, for you to be at this event to see what’s happening around the world, so welcome.

And as I travel the world, whether I’m in Mexico City or Johannesburg, Mumbai, or later this month when I travel to China, I make it a priority to talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations. I always tell them that getting a good education isn’t just about knowing what’s going on in your own community or even in your own country, because no matter where we live, we all face so many of the same struggles – fighting poverty, hunger and disease; ensuring our most basic rights and freedoms; confronting threats like terrorism and climate change. And in order to solve these problems, we will need to work with others around the world. So our next generation will need exposure to societies and languages and traditions that are very different from their own.

That message of cultural exchange is the focus of all of my international travel, because that connection – the idea that a girl in Dakar shares the same hopes and dreams as a girl from Fiji or Ukraine or the South Side of Chicago – that reminds us that we’re never alone in our struggles. And that’s what must compel us to reach beyond our own borders, whether that means getting on an airplane or picking up an iPad or maybe simply writing a letter. There is too much work left to be done, too many young people who can’t go to school, too many families struggling to put food on the table, too many women and minorities who are excluded and oppressed.

So none of us can afford to just go about our business as usual. We cannot just sit back and think this is someone else’s problem. As one of our honorees, Zimbabwe’s Beatrice Mtetwa, as she once said about the fight for progress in her home country, she said, “This has to be done. Somebody’s got to do it, and why shouldn’t it be you?” That is the courage we celebrate today; that willingness to not only ask that question but to devote your soul, your entire soul, toward finding an answer; that fearlessness to step forward even though you don’t know what lies ahead; that audacity to believe that principles like justice and equality can become a reality, but only if we’re willing to sacrifice for it. That is the courage that we all must challenge ourselves to summon every single day in our own families, in our own communities. And if we can do that, then we won’t just be making a difference for those closest to us, we’ll be creating a ripple effect of our own.

So I want to thank these honorees once again for their tremendous bravery, for their efforts, for their courage, for their work to make change in their own lives and communities and throughout the world. I cannot wait to see the impact you will continue to make in the years ahead. God bless you all. (Applause.)

And now it is my pleasure to turn the podium back over to Ambassador Russell to continue the program.

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Thank you, Mrs. Obama. As always, it’s such a pleasure to have you here and I really appreciate you coming over here. It’s really a treat for all of us.

It’s now my great pleasure to introduce a former colleague and now a new colleague here at the State Department, who’s a tremendous advocate for promoting the rights and opportunities of women and girls in all parts of the world, Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom. (Applause.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGGINBOTTOM: Thank you, Cathy. We are very lucky to have such a terrific ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. It’s a pleasure to honor these remarkable and courageous women with our First Lady Michelle Obama, an amazing woman of courage in her own right. Mrs. Obama, thank you for being here today and for being such a powerful advocate and role model for women and girls all around the world.

I also want to thank Dr. Vanessa Kerry for joining us today to help represent her father, and also for her tremendous leadership on global health issues. And of course, I want to welcome the 2014 International Women of Courage. What an honor it is to be in the company of so many heroes.

I know, as others have said, that Secretary Kerry is very disappointed that he couldn’t be here. He’s been talking about this event for weeks. Last year, this ceremony was one of the very first public events that he took part in as Secretary, and he was enormously moved by it. And while we all wish that he could be here, I’m honored to play a role in this event today.

The stories of last year’s honorees humbled and inspired me months and months after their visit to Washington. And I know that the same will be true today. Year after year, against great odds and often under dangerous circumstances, these honorees are changing the world. The 10 extraordinary women we’re honoring today represent women everywhere who have dedicated their lives to pursuing justice and opportunity, and I look forward to sharing their inspiring stories with you in just a few moments.

As you’ll hear, each of the winners is being honored today for her unique and courageous efforts to advance the rights of women and girls, but together they represent countless women pursuing those same goals all over the world, women of all ages and all backgrounds, who take on this work daily with no expectation of recognition or reward.

Secretary Kerry often talks about the opportunities he has had to meet some of these women on his travels as Secretary of State. During his first week in office, he met with a group of Burmese women leaders, two of whom were political prisoners who are now giving back to the country that once held them back. In Pakistan, he broke the Ramadan fast with a group of remarkable women who had just completed their education with the help of global partnership programs and were beginning to carve out careers for themselves, blazing a path for other young women to follow. And in the Philippines, he met local women who were helping to organize the aid coming in for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

Confronting the obstacles you face head on, doing whatever you can to make a difference – that’s the definition of courage. And every one of those courageous women, and certainly the women on this stage today, illustrate perfectly why the United States is a strong advocate for the rights of women and girls, and why gender equality is front and center in President Obama’s foreign policy. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do; it’s because when women and girls are safe, able to exercise their universal rights, and empowered to participate fully in decision-making processes, societies benefit. That’s why every American diplomat and development professional knows it’s their job to integrate gender equality and the advancement of women and girls into every aspect of their work.

It’s also why Secretary Kerry launched the Full Partnership Fund last year to help American diplomats better support gender equality and women’s empowerment by providing additional resources to implement innovative ideas. Among the fund’s inaugural grants are projects like women’s entrepreneurial community centers in Pakistan that will give new and emerging women entrepreneurs access to the mentorship and expert assistance they need to grow their businesses and support their families. The grants are supporting State Department collaboration with women leaders in Sri Lanka and Zambia to ensure that more women speak out, vote, and stand for election at all levels of government. And they’re also helping radio stations throughout Bolivia boost their reporting on women’s issues in that country.

Our goal is simple and it’s one that President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and the entire State Department are deeply committed to: We want to see full participation of women in the economic, social, and political lives of their countries. You only have to look around the room today to see how strong women make the world a better place. International Women’s Day reminds us that we all have a responsibility to protect the health, education, welfare, human rights of women and girls so their inherent strength can be realized. Because in too many places around the world there are people who try to hamstring that strength, to limit the opportunities women and girls have to meet their goals.

The women on this stage are working hard to change that, and their stories prove that legal hurdles, threats, and even violence are no match for a woman of courage. It is now my honor to introduce to you these extraordinary women.

Our first honoree is Ruslana Lyzhychko of Ukraine. Ruslana is a pop music singer who became famous after she won the 2003 EuroVision song contest. But today, she is known instead for her commitment to the EuroMaidan community. As the peaceful protests emerged following President Yanukovych’s decision to reject an association agreement with the European Union, Ruslana joined the demonstrations, spending her days on streets and her nights sleeping in cold tents. And every evening, in the face of impending police attacks and death threats, she performed the Ukrainian national anthem for the other demonstrators to reinforce the promise of a diverse and unified Ukraine.

One night last December, as Ruslana sang, rumors of an impending security sweep by the Ukrainian riot police began to spread, sending panic through the crowd. Ruslana held the stage and urged protestors to retain their calmness and composure. And when the government forces arrived to the scene, she reminded them over and over again to respect human rights and refrain from violence.

Anyone who was there that night will tell you how her rallying cries steadied the nerves of the protestors, giving them the courage they needed to successfully withstand more than 2,000 riot police. They will tell you how crowds cheered as eventually the police retreated from a standoff that was intense but ultimately peaceful. And they will tell you how that night will go down in history as one of the EuroMaidan movement’s most amazing displays of unity and determination.

For her steadfast commitment to nonviolent resistance and national unity in the fight against government corruption and human rights abuses, we name Ruslana Lyzhychko a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

Roshika Deo was born and raised to make a difference. When she was a little girl, her father used to take her to the squatter settlements to raise awareness of inequality and the importance of giving back. As an adult, she has been a vocal advocate for Fiji’s return to democracy and especially for the participation of women and young people in the democratization process. She was one of the very first candidates in the country to announce her intention to stand in Fiji’s 2014 elections, the first since a military coup in 2006.

Despite intense criticism, constant threats of rape and violence, and financial difficulties, Roshika and her Be the Change political campaign are inspiring a new generation of Fijian women and youth to believe in democracy and the power of civic participation. Roshika has also been one of Fiji’s most outspoken critics of violence and discrimination against women and girls, and has publicly stood up for greater government accountability. And in her bold efforts to expand political participation among all Fijians, Roshika has refused to be silenced or intimidated. For her advocacy, for political reform in the name of democracy and human rights, and a country free of violence against women, we name Roshika Deo a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

Next we have Fatimata Toure from Mali. During the terrorist occupation of northern Mali, Fatimata channeled her 22 years of experience advocating for women’s health rights to fight tirelessly against the rampant gender-based violence her community experienced. When extremists attacked a hospital in Gao, she didn’t skip a beat before assisting victims in relocating and getting the safety and medical attention they desperately needed. As the conflict continued, Fatimata provided counseling and shelter for victims of rape and forced marriage and publicly denounced perpetrators of gender-based violence. Extremists threatened her daily, ransacked her office, and robbed her at gunpoint. But even as her own home was under assault, Fatimata hid beneath her bed, took out her mobile phone, and continued documenting acts of violence against women.

As the current head of the Regional Forum on Reconciliation and Peace in Gao and director of an NGO, she continues advocating for justice and women’s rights still today. She has dedicated her life to ensuring that not only do victims receive the care they need, but also that the abuse they suffer is not forgotten or ignored. For unwavering courage and tireless work to defend women’s rights against forced marriage and gender-based violence in Gao during the occupation of northern Mali, we name Fatimata Toure a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

On a different continent and in a different conflict, Dr. Nasrin Oryakhil watched as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Against all warnings, she continued to work as an OB/GYN because of her deep belief in the need for women’s access to maternal health services. She provided emergency obstetric care to women and even founded the first center for obstetric fistula repair in Afghanistan. Sometimes in the evening, Taliban members would barge into her clinic and beat her, demanding her to stop working and start praying. But she continued working, praying only that God would bring change to her country. One night, after the Taliban assaulted her, Dr. Nasrin went on to perform 17 surgeries.

Her indisputable strength has increased the recognition for women in medical professions in Afghanistan, and today, Dr. Nasrin continues to set a strong example for Afghan women as president of the Afghan Family Health Association, which is implementing innovative reproductive health programs, providing hotlines for youth shelters for women, and conducting outreach sessions in high schools to raise reproductive health awareness among students. For her tireless efforts to promote women’s health and provide maternal health services in Afghanistan, we name Dr. Nasrin Oryakhil a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

Our next awardee, Dr. Maha Abdulla Al Muneef, has worked tirelessly to spread awareness about domestic violence and victims of child abuse. She is the executive director of the National Family Safety Program, or NFSP, which she founded in 2005 to combat domestic violence and child abuse in Saudi Arabia. Hers is the first organization in Saudi Arabia to address these issues. And under Dr. Al Muneef’s leadership, the NFSP has developed advocacy programs, reported on domestic violence and child abuse statistics in Saudi Arabia, and provided services for victims of abuse.

Their hard work was rewarded in August 2013 when, after a multiyear effort, the Council of Ministers adopted landmark legislation to address these issues. Dr. Al Muneef and the NFSP played an instrumental role in drafting and advising on the Protection from Abuse law, which defines and criminalized domestic violence for the first time in Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, Dr. Al Muneef was unable to be here today, but for promoting awareness of domestic violence and child abuse in Saudi Arabia, and championing support for victims of abuse, we name her a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

Last year on this stage, we honored the memory of a tremendous young Indian woman known simply as Nirbhaya. This tragedy sparked outrage and inspired people all over the world to come together to say no more – no more looking the other way when gender-based violence happens, no more stigma against victim or survivors.

That is also the message of Laxmi from India. When Laxmi was 16, her friend’s brother pursued her romantically. When she refused his advances, he threw acid in her face, inflicting horrible pain and scarring her for life. Acid attacks are committed almost exclusively on women, particularly on young women. Many of the victims feel they have no choice but to withdraw from society or even commit suicide, and they’re more common than you might realize, in part because it’s such an easy weapon to get your hands on. Until recently, anyone could walk into a store and buy a liter of acid as cheaply and as easily as a bottle of window cleaner.

But after her attack, Laxmi became a tireless campaigner against acid attacks. Thanks to her hard work and tremendous diligence, Laxmi was successful in petitioning the supreme court to order the Indian Government to regulate the sale of acid and to make prosecutions of acid attacks easier to pursue. And she continues to push for progress still today. For fearless advocacy on behalf of victims of acid attacks and for bringing hope to survivors of gender-based violence and disfigurement, we name Laxmi a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

Our next honoree is Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze of Georgia. Bishop Gotsiridze is a minority of a minority: a woman working in a predominantly male religious field and a religious minority operating in a society dominated by one faith. But that doesn’t stop her from bravely advocating for gender equality and for the equal protection of all Georgia’s minorities. She takes every opportunity she can to contribute to gender equality, anti-gender-based violence, and other women’s initiatives.

With the help of her church, she has spearheaded a number of efforts to promote tolerance and equality in Georgia. This includes the establishment of interfaith dialogues aimed at protecting the freedom of religious expression in Georgia, especially for the Muslim community. She was also one of the first members of the religious community to condemn a violent counter-protest to the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia rally in Tbilisi. For bravely advocating on behalf of tolerance, opportunity, and equality for all her fellow citizens, we name Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

Since the Tajik Civil War ended in 1997, Oinikhol Bobonazarova has worked tirelessly to draw attention to women’s rights, torture and detention centers, and the plight of Tajik migrant laborers. In September 2013, Ms. Bobonazarova became the first-ever female candidate for president of Tajikistan when the only Islamic political party in central Asia nominated her as its standard bearer. Despite an unsuccessful bid, her nomination shattered one of the highest of glass ceilings and set an important precedent for women in politics.

In the time since, she has continued to speak out against torture and has been instrumental in working to establish the first independent prison-monitoring program since prisons were closed to outside access in 2004. For fearlessly advocating the rights of women and labor migrants and fighting to end torture in Tajik detention centers, we name Oinikhol Bobonazarova a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

As the president of one of Guatemala’s high-risk court tribunals, Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar has made a career of taking on the most difficult and politically sensitive cases. These are cases that deal with high-profile corruption, with organized crime and drug trafficking, and with human rights abuses occurring during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict. More often than not, she has had to wear a bulletproof vest when she left the courthouse at night.

In 2013, Judge Barrios pushed all fear aside and agreed to serve as the presiding judge in the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. The trial was historic. It was the first time that a former head of state had ever been tried for genocide in his home country by the national judiciary. By taking on that case and initiating the judicial process against Efrain Rios Montt, Judge Barrios gave a voice to thousands of Ixil-Mayan victims. She also provided an important legal precedent for genocide cases worldwide. For demonstrating that justice is attainable for all of Guatemala’s citizens and through her perseverance, courage, and personal conviction, consistently fighting to end impunity in Guatemala, we name Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

And finally, today we honor Beatrice Mtetwa, Zimbabwe’s most prominent human rights lawyer. For more than 20 years, Beatrice has fought injustice, defended press freedom, and upheld the rule of law. Beatrice has been harassed, assaulted, and arrested, but she remains a steadfast advocate for human rights, women’s equality and advancement, and social justice.

And like Judge Barrios, she accepted difficult cases that other lawyers have declined for fear of political reprisal. In fact, she has defended two previous International Women of Courage awardees. She has also represented politicians, civil society activists, and local and international journalists, including British and American correspondents arrested while covering Zimbabwe’s 2008 election. For fearlessly defending victims of human rights abuses and championing the rule of law in Zimbabwe, we name Beatrice Mtetwa a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)

Please join me in one more round of applause and gratitude for the amazing work of these 10 extraordinary women. (Applause and cheers.) We could do this all day, couldn’t we? (Laughter.) It’s like the most wonderful, humbling, inspiring event to be a part of.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Dr. Nasrin who will accept the awards on behalf of this group. Thank you. (Applause.)

DR. ORYAKHIL: In the name of God, First Lady Mrs. Obama, Madam Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom, Ambassador Cathy Russell, Dr. Vanessa Kerry, honorable and distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the International Women of Courage, I would like to express my sincere thanks and appreciation for providing me this opportunity to stand here today in front of you and speak a few words.

I’m truly humbled to represent these courageous sister of mine whose incredible and heartfelt stories are not only a source of inspiration for me but also a flaming torch of kindness and making a difference in the life of every conscientious individual.

Dear honored guests, as a doctor in the field of medicine, specifically women health issues, I have been very much involved in the life of a bringing of child – a boy or a girl – a human being who become the center of future generation and eventually the ideal of progress and civilization for the mankind.

Dear guests, it is vital to come this realization that women are half of the population, world populations, and marginalizing a girl or a woman in any form of – or shape means disintegrate the sacred institution of family or our society. Empowering a woman means empowering a society and generation.

I personally experienced this – that when the Afghan woman, under very harsh conditions, were deprived of their basic and God-given rights for a long period of time. However, with great desire and unparalleled bravery and the support of help and the international community, they were able to change the tide against them and gain numerous achievement in the past 12 years in different aspects of life.

While there are obstacles and challenges such as lack of security, rule of law, domestic violence, and corruption still very much remain, but the hope and aspiration of the Afghan women are greater than these challenges. I believe by convening, gathering like this, and receiving support from all members of international community, the hope of the women around the world one day would be materialized when they find themselves in an environment that it truly recognizes and appreciates the real essence of being a woman and a mother.

At the end, I would like to express my gratitude to the Government of the United States, Department of State’s U.S. embassies around the world, Meridian International Center, and other volunteers for facilitating and organizing this important and memorable event.

Thank you for your time. And now I would like to introduce my colleague from India, Ms. Laxmi to recite her poem. Thank you. (Applause.)

MS. LAXMI: Thank you so much. This is my first poem.

You hold the acid that charred my dreams. Your heart bore no love. It had the venom stored. There was never any love in your eyes. They burn me with caustic glance. I am sad that your corrosive name will always be the part of my identity that I carry with this face. Time will not come to my rescue. Every Thursday will remind me of you.

You will hear and you will be told that the face you burned is the face I love now. You will hear about me in the darkness of confinement. The time will be burdened for you. Then you will know that I am alive, free and thriving and living my dreams.

Thank you so much. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Well, now everyone sees why we love these awards so much and why this event is really just the favorite of everyone at the Department.

I have to say that Dr. Nasrin your remarks were beautiful, and I had the chance to visit you at your hospital. And I have to – when you see her here, it’s kind of hard to imagine the hospital that she works in. She does amazing work. But when you go there, in many cases they have more than one patient in a bed, because they’re so cramped for space. And the work she does is so miraculous, and so I just really want to thank you so much for what you do.

And Laxmi, that poem was beautiful and I just – your spirit, obviously, has not been crushed by what happened to you, and I just thank you so much for what you did.

Anyway, on behalf of Mrs. Obama, Deputy Higginbottom, and International Women of Courage, I want to thank you all so much for joining us. If you would all please remain seated just for a moment, we’re going to take a quick group photo, and then we’re going to allow our guests here to exit the stage. So I’m sorry to do that to you, but if you could just sit for just a second, I would appreciate it, and then we’ll do a quick photo.

(A photograph is taken.)


AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Okay. So you’re all very welcome to join us in the Ben Franklin Room. We have a reception in honor of the awardees, so if you’d like to join us for the reception, I think exit in the front of the – yes, in the front of the auditorium. So thank you all. We wish you a very happy International Women’s Day.