Remarks at the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony
Secretary of State
Now, we are lucky today that we have some very special American women with us, some of whom are in this audience, and I welcome them. And I saw out of the corner of my eye Senator Mary Landrieu – (applause) – and I wanted to acknowledge her. (Applause.) But I am particularly delighted to welcome back to the State Department our First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Applause.) This is the second time that Michelle Obama and I have celebrated the International Women of Courage Awards together. It’s a tradition I really like because she is doing so much for women and girls not only in our own country, but around the world. She inspires them. She challenges them. She exemplifies for them the kind of strength, warmth, and grace that so many of us see in her and aspire to for our own daughters. She has made the health and empowerment of young people, particularly young women, a centerpiece of her leadership. And she and I agree on many things, but one that we particularly agree on is that every child should have the chance to fulfill his or her God-given potential. And I just have to thank her for the mentoring programs that she created at the White House, for the special project that she is doing now to tackle childhood obesity, and to really setting the standard for what we want to see in our own country and around the world as well.
And I want to thank and recognize – I want to also recognize Melanne Verveer. (Applause.) Melanne is our country’s first Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and it’s no accident that that would happen in the Obama Administration, where we would have someone of her experience and expertise promoting the political, economic, and social empowerment of women. As Melanne often reminds us, the world is full of remarkable women whose work goes unnoticed or undervalued. And today, we celebrate some particular women, but they really stand in for millions of other women who are serving their communities and making our world a better and safer place for all.
And I want to recognize finally, our partners from Avon – Andrea Jung, the chairwoman and CEO of Avon – (applause) – and Reese Witherspoon, Avon’s global ambassador. Avon is our partner here at the State Department in focusing on and trying to end, once and for all, the global epidemic of violence against women. It happens in the homes, it happens in the streets, it happens all over the world. And we have to call it for what it is – a crime – and we have to mobilize to combat it. And Avon has agreed to be our partner in working with the State Department in doing so. And I thank you both for taking on this challenge with us. (Applause.)
Now, we have so many more people coming in the door – if everybody could take like a half a step back in that direction, we can get everybody else in. Thank you.
Now today once again, we are honoring women from around the world who have endured isolation and intimidation, violence and imprisonment. Many have even risked their lives to advance justice, freedom, and equal rights for everyone. Their stories remind us of how much work there is left to do before the rights and dignity of all people – no matter who you are or where you live – are respected and protected by the world’s governments. But these women prove that change is possible. They are brave and they are making a difference, and they are up against powerful interests determined to bring them down. By honoring them today, the United States and the Obama Administration sends a very clear message that though they may work in lonely circumstances, they are not alone. We are standing with you. (Applause.)
For example, our two honorees from Afghanistan. Shukria Asil is a member of the council in her province of Baghlan. She’s pushing for educational opportunities for girls, professional opportunities for women, and stronger rights and recognition for the mentally disabled. Colonel Shafiqa Quraishi is leading a national effort to recruit thousands of women into the Afghan National Police and to train police officers to better protect women and girls.
Ann Njogu has relentlessly spoken out against government corruption and violence against women in Kenya at great risk to herself. She has documented the upsurge in sexual and gender-based violence that followed the contested election of 2008. Jestina Mukoko monitors human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. After she was abducted and beaten by the police, she took her abusers all the way to the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, which ruled in her favor. (Applause.)
Sister Marie Claude Naddaf opened the first shelter in Syria for women escaping domestic violence and human trafficking. Androula Henriques has built a comprehensive network to stop human trafficking in Cyprus and has opened her home to women preparing to testify against their captors. Although she could not join us today, we celebrate her achievements and pledge our support to end the scourge of human trafficking. (Applause.)
And we also have Shadi Sadr, who has represented women in the Iranian courts and led a campaign to stop the stoning of women. (Applause.) After multiple arrests, she was forced to flee Iran and now fights for the women of Iran from her home in Germany. She is also not here today, but we honor her courage and that of all the woman activists in Iran, many of whom have been persecuted and imprisoned because of their work.
And in countries where entire communities are disenfranchised, it is often the women who work to pull down legal, economic, and cultural barriers, women like Sonia Pierre, who fights discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Or Dr. Lee Ae-Ran, who’s helping North Koreans build new lives in South Korea. Or Jansila Majeed, an advocate for (inaudible) displaced people, both Muslim and Tamil, in Sri Lanka.
Every day, these women and many others are taking on the world’s most entrenched problems. And we here at the State Department and throughout this Administration are trying to be good partners to them, because even though they’re working one person at a time, one court case at a time, one rally or one rescue at a time, we want to bring their work to a greater audience and try to amplify it and to make clear that human rights provide the foundation for the work that we do here in the United States.
So on this day, in this week where we celebrate International Women’s Day, we honor some whose stories are rarely told but who deserve to be heard. And we ask that as we applaud each of them, we recognize all those who will never have a chance to be recognized in any forum for all that they do as well.
And let me close with this message to our honorees. We look forward to building relationships with you. We will be watching your progress, listening for news of your successes, struggles, and above all, your safety. We send a message to all governments that might not be thrilled that you’re here that we’ll be watching them as well. And we thank you for everything you are doing and will do.
Now it is my pleasure to introduce two of our special guests, Andrea Jung and Reese Witherspoon, who are here to make an announcement about a partnership with our new Global Women’s Leadership Fund, a public-private partnership here at the State Department that makes grants to NGOs that work to meet the critical needs of the world’s women and girls.
Andrea and Reese?
MS. JUNG: Thank you, Madam Secretary. Mrs. Obama, Ambassador Verveer, Women of Courage honorees, what an honor it is to be here with all of you today. Secretary Clinton, thank you for the wonderful introduction. All of us are supporting you every single step of the way as you are charting a course for America in the world, putting development on par with defense and diplomacy, strengthening communities and institutions, and leading with a steady hand and listening. We’re very proud to have you represent us. It’s wonderful to see the progress you are making, and it’s a tremendous privilege to partner with the State Department in promoting the cause of women around the world.
At Avon, our commitment to empowering women is grounded in our heritage. Avon was founded almost 125 years ago in 1886 on the simple, simple, simple belief that women had the right to earn money and be economically independent. This was truly a revolutionary idea at a time when women virtually had no role outside the home and would not win the right to vote for another 34 years. But there was no stopping a good idea. Today, with nearly six million representatives serving 300 million women in more than 100 countries, Avon is the company for women. And we have known first hand that improving women’s lives is by empowering them, and that empowering women can make all the difference for their families, for communities, and for countries. And that is why, in addition to helping women achieve financial independence through the business model, Avon and the Avon Foundation for Women have, since 1955, awarded more than $725 million in over 50 countries to help women overcome other barriers to independence. (Applause.)
So independence, health, safety, these are critical women’s issues that we’ve supported. Earlier today, we announced our partnership with Vital Voices to launch the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Women, including a $1.2 million grant to support this effort.
And now this afternoon, I am so proud – (applause). Thank you. This afternoon, I am so proud to announce another very important partnership with the U.S. State Department. Madam Secretary, the Avon Foundation is very proud to contribute half a million dollars to the Secretary of State’s Fund for Global Women’s Leadership. (Applause.) And this $500,000 grant will provide funds for NGOs that work on domestic and gender violence issues around the world, to help you support the most innovative and successful models being developed, some of which will hopefully emerge from our partnership summit this week. It’s our hope and belief that this gift will accelerate the global effort to end violence among women.
Since launching our Speak Out Against Domestic Violence campaign a few short years ago, Avon has committed more than $16 million to the fight against gender-based violence. In the end, though, we know that it is not about the dollars that makes a difference. It’s also advocacy, solidarity, and the willingness to truly shine a light on an issue that is too often hidden in the dark. In the end, it’s about refusing to accept things as they are, and doing what we can do with what we have to ensure a better tomorrow. So I have no doubt that together, we can and we will end violence against women. We’re so proud of this partnership this afternoon. We see first hand what can happen when, together, we empower women. We see the opportunity, we see the progress, and we see and believe in the hope. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MS. WITHERSPOON: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much, Andrea, Mrs. Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Ambassador Verveer. It is truly an honor to be here today.
As an actress, I’ve always sought out roles that portrayed women as strong and powerful, such as Elle Woods, who was in the Legally Blonde movies – (laughter) – who happened to be the biggest fashionista who ever came to Washington – until Michelle Obama. (Laughter.) Thanks a lot. (Laughter.)
That’s why I was thrilled when Avon approached me to become their global ambassador and the honorary chair of the Avon Foundation for Women. Avon is truly a company that is dedicated to changing women’s lives all over the world through economic opportunities and through their incredible philanthropic efforts. Avon is also a company with a conscience and the courage to take on very difficult issues.
I came to Avon having worked with a number of children’s charities, and what struck me then was the most important thing that you can do in a child’s life is help their mother. That’s when I began to realize the importance of women’s – (applause). Thank you, it’s true. That’s when I began to realize the importance of women’s empowerment. It isn’t only about the girls and the women who are barred from realizing their potential. It’s also about their children, their families, and their communities.
That’s why it’s so important that we make investments like the one that Andrea and Secretary Clinton have announced today. And that’s why we also need to support the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act. (Applause and cheers.) In too many communities, spousal abuse, rape, and honor killings remain day-to-day realities for many women and girls. This act creates a comprehensive approach to combat violence, from holding perpetrators accountable to supporting survivors and to promoting economic opportunities for them. These are initiatives that all of you are already making possible, and by passing the act we can ensure that they are written into law.
As I look around this room today, I see policy makers, activists, and community leaders, people who have dedicated themselves to making a difference. But I also see mothers and fathers, sisters and daughters, who know the impact that they can make in their own families and communities. And that’s what gives me such hope that we can change things in our time for women everywhere. You understand the impact of speaking up and speaking out in order to create this imperative change in the world.
I am lucky enough to have a little daughter of my own, and I feel so very inspired to be here today surrounded by people who work tirelessly to change the way women are treated all over the world. Because of your hard work, your support, and your endless faith in the potential of women, I know you will make this world a better place for my daughter and for all of yours as well.
Thank you so much. (Applause.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you so much, Andrea and Reese, and thanks to everyone at Avon for joining the fight for women’s lives. Now it is my great pleasure and my honor to introduce a women who has become a global symbol of strength and service, who represents our nation to the world with grace, warmth, and style – (laughter) – that transcends borders and barriers, the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama. (Applause and cheers.)
(The First Lady gives remarks.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, thank you so very much. That was absolutely wonderful. And having the young women who are part of the White House mentoring project here just added extra exclamation points to Mrs. Obama’s message. And thank you so much for once again sharing this special occasion with us.
What we’re going to do now is actually present the honorees. I will read the awards citations and then Mrs. Obama and I will present them with their International Women of Courage Award. I’d like to note that we’re going to start with two women from Afghanistan, so let me start with Shukria Asil – (applause) – as one of four female members of the Baghlan Provincial Council. Ms. Asil has been instrumental in promoting government responsiveness to the needs of Afghan women. She is being honored for pioneering efforts to promote opportunity, justice, and education for women and girls; serving as a voice for diverse members of Afghan society; and at great personal risk, increasing the accountability and responsiveness of the government to the needs of women and girls in Afghanistan. Thank you so much, Ms. Asil. (Applause.)
(The Award was presented.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: I woke up to the voice of this next honoree because she was interviewed on public radio, NPR, this morning. And Colonel Shafiqa Quraishi of Afghanistan is the Director of Gender, Human, and Child rights within the Ministry of the Interior. She began her career in the Afghan National Police. She has been at the forefront of integrating women into the government and police force. And she is being honored for her visionary leadership in breaking down barriers to the professional advancement of Afghan women, promoting unity and gender equality, humanitarian activism, and initiating programs to strengthen the Afghan National Police. Congratulations, Colonel. (Applause.)
(The Award was presented.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: You heard Mrs. Obama speaking of this next honoree, Sonia Pierre of the Dominican Republic. She was born on Dominican soil to Haitian parents. She is the founder and leader of the Movement for Dominican Women of Haitian Descent, an NGO dedicated to fighting for the rights of vulnerable communities in her country. She is being honored for advancing the cause of social justice, confronting exploitation and discrimination, defending the dignity of persons of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, and helping marginalized communities develop their own voices for their own future. Congratulations, Sonia. (Applause.)
(The Award was presented.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Ann Njogu of Kenya is the co-convener of the Civil Society Congress – (cheers and applause) – a leader in constitutional reform and head of the Center for Rights, Education, and Awareness. She has been an activist seeking social transformation and working for reform in her native country. She is being honored for progressive leadership in the fight against corruption, the push for gender equality in Kenya, the battle for constitutional reform, and for bravely mobilizing Kenyan civil society to secure the passage of landmark legislation against sexual offenses. (Applause and cheers.)
(The Award was presented.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Dr. Lee Ae-ran of South Korea was born in North Korea. She was a witness to tyranny at a very early age. She defected to South Korea and transformed her life, where she has been a force for promoting human rights of the North Korean refugee community. She is being honored for spearheading initiatives to improve the lives and education of the North Korean refugee community in South Korea, elevating the empowerment of women, and raising awareness of the dire human rights situation in North Korea. Congratulations, Dr. Lee. (Applause.)
(The Award was presented.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Jansila Majeed of Sri Lanka is a women who lived as an internally displaced person for almost 20 years. She became one of the few women activists working on behalf of the displaced Muslim and Tamil civilians and is the managing trustee of the Community Trust Fund in Puttalam Province. She’s being honored for her dedicated grassroots activism and minority community leadership on behalf of women and girls, their empowerment, peace building, relief work, the resettlement of internally displaced persons, and a commitment to bringing society together. Congratulations.
(The Award was presented.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Sister Marie Claude Naddaf is the Mother Superior of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd. She has been a beacon of hope for women and girls who have nowhere else to turn. She is a pioneer in working for social services for women in Syria. She is being honored for her steadfast dedication to ending the suffering of women and girls who are victims of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking. She launched Syria’s first shelter and emergency hotline for women. Thank you so much, Sister. (Applause.)
(The Award was presented.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: And the final honoree who could be with us today is Jestina Mukoko of Zimbabwe. Jestina is the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project and a longtime leader in the human rights and activist community in her country. She is being honored for her relentless activism for justice and defense of human rights, for bringing attention to widespread violence against women in Zimbabwe, and for pursuing her case to the supreme court, resulting in a victory that has offered hope to her fellow citizens. Congratulations. (Applause and cheers.)
(The Award was presented.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: And we will, of course, be sure that our honorees from Cyprus and Iran receive their awards.
Now one of our honorees who you’ve just met, Jestina Mukoko of Zimbabwe, will be speaking on behalf of all of this year’s honorees, and I would like to welcome her to the podium. (Applause.)
MS. MUKOKO: The First Lady Mrs. Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Mrs. Hillary Clinton, Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer, fellow awardees, invited guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to be accorded this opportunity that cannot be taken for granted, to speak on behalf of these remarkable women. (Applause.)
They have carved different but inspiring stories in their countries, from being denied growing up in their country of birth, being internally displaced, and suffering brutality at the hands of the police and other agencies. On behalf of the awardees, we accept this prestigious award with humility, knowing fully well that we have been propelled to this stage by other courageous women who have sacrificed a lot, and some even their lives in some cases. (Applause.)
The International Women of Courage Award is a solidarity message that unites women from all over the world, regardless of race, religion, and color. And we have learned that even language has failed to be a barrier to understanding and acknowledging what each one of us is doing. This indeed, Madam Secretary, not only resonates with your strong notion that women’s rights are human rights but is in line with the theme this year of the International Women’s Day, equal rights, equal opportunities, progress for all. (Applause.)
By accepting this award bestowed on the 10 of us, we confirm that women have a place in the fight for equality and justice, as this award we believe actually belongs to the multitude of women we work with and some we honor posthumously today because they are no longer with us, having died fighting the good fight. The award beckons on us to stand tall and refuse to be intimidated and harassed, as these are tactics to remove us from the focus of our objectives. We do not want to be passive bystanders, and it is such recognition that ensures that we do not tire until we reach the finish line and pass the baton to the next generation, the girls who are among us.
The situation of women in conflict situation is sad, as we know that they bear the brunt of violence. But as peace comes on the horizon, women are easily forgotten to take part in the initiatives that could mend their souls. (Applause.)
If only the suffering of women in conflict could be matched with equal participation in initiatives to build peace, we believe the results would be lasting and sustainable. (Applause.) This platform gives the world the rare opportunity to zoom into each part of the world and understand better the trials and tribulations that have characterized the work of women human rights defenders. As women human rights defenders, we know that the work has not been easy, and no one said it was going to be easy. And we are determined to mobilize other women in all parts of the world to demand their space.
In unison, we all say this award rewards our families and friends who lose sleep and are traumatized every time that we experience imprisonment or abuse because without their support, we might have given up. Our children have been there when we have thought we have been stripped of dignity and integrity, and watched in dismay in some cases as gross pictures are shown on television. This emblem, I am sure, gives them a reason to hug us because in some cases they fail to give us the hug because we are behind bars.
As a human rights defender myself at the helm of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, an organization that monitors and documents violations of human rights that are politically motivated, I am inspired by stories of courage as women who have consistently fought for the defense and the protection of human rights for all. I am a survivor of violence at the hands of state security agents when I was abducted, tortured, and kept incommunicado for three weeks without my family and son knowing whether I was still alive or not. Standing before you today gives me the acknowledgement that the experiences that Zimbabwean women and indeed women in Afghanistan, Cypress, Dominican Republic, Iran, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka, and Syria continue to endure, unknown beyond their own borders. And it also gives me the space and platform to amplify their voices. The life and the work of human rights defenders is not for the faint-hearted. (Laughter.) While all we want to do is to contribute to the good of all, it is not uncommon to be labeled otherwise.
Madam Secretary, your quest and commitment to the empowerment of women from an early age is unparalleled, shown by how being refused to go on the astronaut training simply because you were a woman devastated you. (Laughter.) The honor today reinforces the triumph of our different religions, and I believe God had a purpose for all of us. Today the recognition affords us as a collective from all corners of the globe, not only to brush shoulders with the American First Lady but it also gives us an opportunity to interact, share experiences, and learn from each other with the simple objective of making the fight for equality and justice universal. Thank you. (Applause.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: So, now you know why we look forward to this day, so that we can be inspired and uplifted and challenged and go forth from here as human rights defenders, each and every one of us, and do our part and count our blessings and remember that as we enjoy the reception here today, there are women and men fighting for their lives and fighting for the rights of others. And the United States must stand with them. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)