Remarks at the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony

Hillary Rodham Clinton
   Secretary of State
Melanne Verveer
   Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
First Lady Michelle Obama
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
March 8, 2012

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you all. Thank you very much. Thank you. Good morning and welcome to the State Department once again. I am so grateful that all of you have joined us here today for what has become, in our view, one of the most important and special occasions of the year here in Washington. I want to thank my friend and colleague, Ambassador Melanne Verveer who has been, as you know, a tireless champion for women and girls for decades. (Applause.) Melanne and her team have not only made this event such a special occasion year after year, but they have helped put women and girls at the center of everything we do here at the State Department and in the Obama Administration. So thanks again, Melanne. Although, it was left out of her mention of the 7th grade girls that one of them is her granddaughter. So – (laughter) – she is very committed to the next generation, and I thank you for everything you have done and will do.

Now, why is this a special occasion? Well, for one thing, it is the way we mark International Women’s Day, to gather leaders and activists, and particularly our honorees here in Washington to recognize their remarkable achievements. And for the fourth year, we are so honored to be joined by the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. (Applause.) Now, I do take a point of personal privilege in talking about the First Lady, because I have just an inkling of what her life is like every day – (laughter) – and I want to publicly thank her for being an inspiration for women and girls and families and communities here in the United States and around the world.

It’s always an honor to share a stage with her, and I think it’s also a reminder that we have a lot of work to do. It is, of course, about the leadership and the voice of a first lady or a secretary of state, but it is much, much more than that. And what Michelle and I have tried to do in our own ways is to lift up the voices of others, because we want a great crescendo of voices, an international chorus that says clearly and unequivocally that women and girls deserve the same rights and opportunities as their fathers and brothers and sons. And today, we will hear remarkable stories from our honorees. They come from diverse and distant places, but in one important way they all walk the same path. They, too, are working tirelessly for justice. They are working for accountability. They are working for freedom, and they are working tirelessly to improve the lives of women and girls.

Whether pushing for change in the halls of government in the Maldives, the courts of Saudi Arabia; whether making sure women have a voice in Libya’s future and a role in Pakistan’s government; whether enduring imprisonment or abuse for trying to assist other women and girls at risk, these women, who you will meet today, are all making a difference in the face of adversity, often under the threat of violence that is sometimes hard for those of us here in Washington or across our great country even to imagine. And while we honor them today, we know that tomorrow their work will and must continue so that every woman and girl someday will have the opportunity to live up to her own God-given potential.

As I often say, this isn’t just the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do. Improving the lives of women improves the lives of their families, strengthens their communities, and does create more opportunities for economic growth and prosperity. We know that investing in women’s employment, health, and education levels leads to greater economic growth across a broad spectrum. It also leads to healthier children and a better educated population overall. We know that political systems that are open to full participation by women produce more effective institutions and more representative governments. And we know that the work that so many of you do will be done day after day as it moves us closer and closer to realizing the vision of equality.

As long as you are on the front lines of this struggle, the United States will be with you, and we will use every tool at our disposal to help you. That’s why next week when all of the United States ambassadors from around the world gather here in Washington, I will be issuing the first ever Secretarial policy directive on gender. This guidance – (applause) – this guidance, which complements the recently released USAID gender policy, will instruct our embassies and bureaus to implement specific steps to promote gender equality and advance the status of women and girls in all of our work in order to further both our national security and our foreign policy goals.

Now, this issue is not just a priority here at the State Department or at USAID, but across the Administration, and that is why we are so pleased that the First Lady is here lending her support. She and President Obama have made it absolutely clear that women and girls will be a focus of what we do here at home and around the world.

Last year, Mrs. Obama traveled to South Africa and spoke at a forum for young women leaders from across Africa. And she told those bright, young women that now is the time for their voices to be heard. For them and for so many others, she said that the power was in their hands to help usher in an era when women would no longer be second-class citizens, and they would be able fully to participate in open and accountable government. I cannot think of anyone better to carry that message and to signal America’s commitment to advancing the rights and opportunities of women and girls, and I’m so grateful to both President and Mrs. Obama for all they have done to make this a priority.

So please join me in welcoming our First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)

(The First Lady makes remarks.)

MS. GBOWEE: Thank you. Please have your seats. Thank you. Tina Brown has a way -- not Tina Brown, Oprah Magazine – (laughter) -- did something on Abby and I, Abby Disney, and they said “the rabble rouser.”. And I hate to come to places like this and see everyone trying to be so neat. (Laughter.)

Today is International Women’s Day and it’s a day of celebration. Can the men in the room just shout Happy International Women’s Day to all of the girls in this room? (Laughter.) If you don’t, we’ll put you out. (Laughter.)

I’m listening. Shout Happy International –

AUDIENCE: Happy International Women’s Day!

MS. GBOWEE: Thank you. (Applause.) You deserve it.

In 2003, we were in a crowd protesting the wars in Liberia. Someone came and brought me a book, Living History, Secretary of State Clinton’s book. And as I flipped through the pages of that book, there was a quote in there that I’ve used over time, a quote from the great African American freedom fighter here Harriet Tubman. “If you’re hungry, keep walking. If you’re tested, keep walking. If you want a taste of freedom, keep walking.” Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, the 10 Women of Courage here have shown to us that regardless of wherever they find themselves, they’ve been walking – Walking for justice, walking for human rights, walking for maternal health, walking for every other thing. One of the things I’ve seen, sadly, even as we celebrate all of the milestones – Beijing 1325, 1820, 1888, and all of those policies and international protocols on women’s rights, over time we’ve mellowed. The women’s movement of this world has mellowed. Our issues and our conversation has become issues for men. I get angry when I think about it. No woman should sit down and allow a man to speak about her reproductive rights. (Applause.)

MS. GBOWEE: Until you’ve gone through that process, I’ve come from Africa to tell you, you don’t qualify. (Laughter.)

Issues of peace and security should not be left to men alone to work on. (Applause.) When it comes to conflict situations, women know their context, they have greater analysis, and they know what to do. I didn’t come here to preach; I don’t have a lot of time. What I’ve come to say to my sisters as we celebrate International Women’s Day, Secretary of State, Ambassador Verveer, and First Lady Obama, I think it’s time for us to really start to move forward with our issues. Gone are the days for us to sit and say we’ve gotten policies, we’ve gotten this, we’ve gotten that. It’s time for us to get out there, roll up our sleeves, and connect the dots. These women are working very hard. And yes, we can give them all of the verbal support, we can give them all of the honors, but until we continue to make it possible for them to work through resources, their issues will continue to be issues for politicians to use to make themselves look good when it’s elections time. It’s time for us to stand up, rise up, fight for the rights that we know how to fight for. It’s time for us to support our sisters. (Applause.)

I’ve been an activist all of my life and I know what it is and what it takes to get to where you want to get to. I know what it is when you need to do something for little girls today as we celebrate International Women’s Day here. We’re celebrating International Women’s Day in Acrah, Ghana with little girls at the La Palm hotel. I tell you, as beautiful as it sounds, getting resources to get those girls to that place is a difficult thing. Let’s honor them, but not just leave them with the honor. Let’s support their work, support their efforts, and continue to make their issue our issue, and not a politician issue.

Thank you all very much. (Applause)

MS. KARMAN: After Leyman -- (laughter). And also, it’s hard to talk in English, so I will do my best. Ladies and ladies – (laughter) – happy birthday. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentleman, really I am so proud to be here to celebrate with you an International Women’s Day. This is special day, special day for all of us, special day for all the women around the world, for all the women especially in Arab countries after Arab Spring. (Applause.)

Yes, this is a year without bin Ladin. This is a year without Qadhafi. This is a year without Mabarak. This is a year without Ali Saleh. And this is a year, inshallah, without Bashar al-Assad. (Applause.)

So this is nice morning, good morning for all of us, morning of freedom and dignity and courage. To all the women around the world, you have to trust yourself. You have to know that without you, you can’t – and your society, your community couldn’t achieve their goals and their dreams. To all women in the world, you must know that you have to be in the front line. You have to refuse any seats back. You have to be in the front and you have to struggle for all the rights, not just women rights. (Applause.)

Greetings, big greetings to all women who are fighting for help or for their participating in public and political rights. Public and political field, this is a very important field for every woman and for every society. I want to say also big greetings to all the women, all women in Syria who are fighting for her – for their freedom. (Applause.)

Big greetings to all women who are struggling and suffering and sacrificing their life, their bloods, for making their country best for freedom, for dignity, and for happiness. To all people around the world, you have to know that without women, you can’t achieve everything. Especially men, men has to be with women. They have to work hand by hand for solving all problems around the world, for making peace spread around the world. To all of them, I want to tell them that we will not make the holiday or the ceremony for women just one day. We will make it 365 days. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Wow. Well, I have to tell you, whenever I hear Leyman or Tawakkol, I’m just so inspired. These two women have made such a difference in the lives of their country. For those of you who haven’t seen Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which talks about what Leyman and her Liberian sisters did to end a vicious civil war and bring peace to Liberia, I highly recommend it. And to my friend, Tawakkol, who’s been on the front lines of the struggle for freedom and democracy in Yemen, it is so humbling to see the progress that you are making.

It is now my honor to present this year’s International Women of Courage Awards, and I would ask each of the honorees to join the First Lady and me one at a time after I read the citations. And before I begin with the individual presentations, I want to say that the call to action we heard from our two Nobel Laureates is one I hope everyone will remember. Sometimes the women we honor come here against great odds and in the face of danger. Sometimes shining this bright spotlight on their work protects them. But they all come with a commitment to continuing that we have to embrace and support. Because each of them can use our help.

So with that, let me begin.

While it’s a struggle for many women in Afghanistan to have their voices heard, Maryam Durani is working to make sure that women’s voices aren’t only heard, but amplified and broadcasted. She owns and manages the only local radio station that focuses on women’s issues. Kandahar province, where Maryam lives, is one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, but that has not stopped her from speaking out for women’s rights and representing those ideas from her seat on the provincial council. Airing such bold ideas in public is not always popular, and she is with us today having survived several attempts on her life. Yet she pushes forward undeterred, ensuring that those voices and the message of equality and inclusion is heard loudly and clearly.

So to you, Maryam: “Director of the Khadija Kubra Women’s Association for Culture Kandahar and Provincial Council Member: For striving to give a voice to women through the power of the media, government, and civil society, despite innumerable security and societal challenges.” We honor and applaud you. (Applause.)

Major Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo joined the Rio De Janeiro Police Force in 1998 and went to work in police battalions, cracking down on the criminals who plagued the beautiful, lively streets of Rio. She was eventually kidnapped by a gang seeking to undermine the rule of law in Brazil. Eventually, she was released, and the mayor demonstrated her duty and also extreme courage and commitment by going after and arresting the gang of criminals who had kidnapped her. (Applause.)

Today, she is a prominent leader in the police force in Rio de Janeiro, and she continues to work with local governments to improve services and expand access to education and vocational training.

So to Pricilla, to Major: “General Coordinator for Strategic Programs, Rio de Janeiro State Secretariat of Public Security, Major of Rio de Janeiro State Military Police: For courageous and dedicated service to Rio de Janeiro State’s innovative ‘Favela Pacification Program’ as the first female commander of a Pacification Police Unit, and as coordinator of that in the State Security Secretariat, where she is integrating previously marginalized populations back into the larger Rio de Janeiro community.” Thank you, and God bless you for your work. (Applause.)

Eleven years in a Burmese prison could not silence Zin Mar Aung. Her life’s work has been promoting democracy, women’s rights, and conflict resolution in Burma. Today, she leads a self-help association for female ex-political prisoners as well as a school of political science. Her efforts have allowed former prisoners to take advantage of rebuilding their lives, even when her activism jeopardized her own freedom. She continues to raise awareness of issues affecting ethnic minorities in this evolving environment for civil society and democracy activists.

So, Zin, you are a democracy activist, and so: “For championing democracy, strengthening civil society, and empowering individuals to contribute meaningfully to the political transformation of your country, we thank you and salute you.” (Applause.)

Jineth Bedoya Lima built her career in Colombia as a reporting seeking out tough assignments and going to great lengths to uncover the truth. But in 2000, she got too close to uncovering an arms smuggling ring involving government prison officials and imprisoned paramilitary leaders. When she traveled to the prison to interview some of those involved, she was kidnapped, driven two hours out of Bogota, raped, bound, and thrown into a garbage dump. “Pay attention,” she was told by her abusers. “We are sending a message to the press in Colombia.” Despite the most horrific treatment any woman can imagine, Jineth would not be silenced. Instead, she built on her work as an investigative journalist and demanded justice in her own case. She has become an outspoken advocate, shining a light on issues of sexual violence and denouncing criminals who think they can operate with impunity.

So to you, Jineth: “Journalist, Spokeswoman of the ‘Rape and Other Violence: Take my Body Out of the War’ Campaign: For your unfailing courage, determination, and perseverance while fighting for justice and speaking out on behalf of victims of sexual violence in Colombia, all women and girls are in your debt.” Thank you. (Applause.)

As the dust of the Libyan revolution settles, the details of those tumultuous months are coming to light. We honor today Hana El Hebshi, a 27-year-old architect who was one of the people who documented that history while it was unfolding. Writing under the pseudonym Numidia, her reporting not only showed the world what the people of Libya were enduring, but let the people of Libya know that the world was standing with them. She remains a strong voice for freedom of expression and women’s inclusion as the Libyan people chart the course for their country’s future.

So, Hana: “Human Rights Activist: For courageous advancement of the cause of freedom and the freedom especially of expression, and for the promotion of women’s rights during times of conflict and transition in Libya, we thank you and we thank all of Libya’s daughters and sons who have made their country free. (Applause.)

Even though the topic of domestic violence was taboo in the Maldives, Aneesa Ahmed, the Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs, was unafraid to speak out and take action. She brought together citizens and stakeholders to build new partnerships to produce a series of documentaries to raise awareness about this issue and to begin the process of changing the way people think about it. As a government official, she pushed for legislation to curb domestic violence. And since leaving the government, Aneesa has founded her own NGO, Hope For Women. Her group works to ensure that domestic violence issues are part of the public discourse and in the debates in government.

When religious leaders got on the radio and said that female genital mutilation was an acceptable religious practice, Aneesa fought right back, telling the public about the harmful effects of this practice and calling on the government to intervene to stop it. She is inspiring others to speak out about these once hidden problems, urging students and police officers and activists to confront these issues in the open.

So Aneesa: “Founder, member and chairperson, Hope For Women NGO, for your courageous and continued advocacy for women’s rights throughout government and civil society as well as the protection of women from domestic violence, we thank you for improving the lives and sending the message that domestic violence is not a cultural practice, it is a crime.” (Applause.)

Shad Begum encouraged women in her community to participate in the political process by voting and running for office herself. Now she lives in one of the most conservative areas of Pakistan, so this was a very tall order. Nevertheless, she did, herself, run for office against candidates who wanted to ban women from participating in elections altogether. Despite that sort of resistance, she won a seat on her district council in 2001 and 2005.

She continues her work creating opportunities for women beyond government. She also founded the Union of Women’s Welfare, which is providing women the skills and knowledge they need to get involved in the political process, as well as offering microcredit, primary education, and human services for women in need.

So Shad: “Executive Director, Anjuman Behbood-e-Khawateen Talash, thank you for fearlessly championing Pakistani women’s political and economic rights, and working to empower the disadvantaged and oppressed. You are making a difference and setting an example for women and men in your country.” (Applause.)

Samar Bedawi is standing up against two of the most significant challenges facing women in Saudi Arabia: women’s sufferage and a system in which women cannot marry who they want, get a job of their choosing, or travel outside the country without permission of a male guardian. She is demanding that her voice be heard and justice delivered in the Saudi courts. Samar was the first woman to sue her guardian because she hadn’t been allowed to marry the person she wanted to marry. She is also the first woman to file suit against the government for the right to vote in municipal elections. Samar has translated her personal efforts into broader campaigns, encouraging more women to speak out for their rights, and her efforts are making a difference. A recent royal decree will allow women to vote and run for office in future elections as well as be appointed to the consultative council.

So Samar: “You are a Human Rights Activist, a monitor of human rights in your country of Saudi Arabia, and you have demonstrated significant courage in your activism while becoming a champion in the struggle for women’s suffrage and legal rights in your country. And you are making a difference, and we thank you for that.” (Applause.)

Hawa Abdallah Mohammed Salih has spent much of her life surrounded by conflict. Nine years ago, she and her family were forced to flee their home to escape the fighting between Darfuri rebels and the Sudanese Government. Years in a camp for displaced persons ignited within her the drive to demand basic human rights for so many suffering in the Darfur region. She went to school – the University of Al-Fashir – and began working with the United Nations Development Program on issues of human rights, rule of law, and governance. Her aim now is to continue working to strengthen the rights of women and children in Sudan.

So, Hawa: “Human Rights Activist, thank you for giving voice to the women and children of Darfur and for your fearless advocacy for the rights of all marginalized Darfuris. And we hope and pray with you that peace will finally come to Darfur.” (Applause.)

Safak Pavey has tireless passion and she has brought that energy to work on behalf of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Her advocacy around the world is helping to protect so many people. When she was elected last June, she became the first woman with a disability to sit in the Turkish Parliament. (Applause.) But she has transformed her disability into a strength. Wherever she travels, and she’s traveled quite a lot, she is bringing attention to the issues that affect persons with disabilities, vulnerable populations, women, children, and minorities.

I am very grateful to you, Safak, grateful for your advocacy, grateful for the courage it took to run for the parliament, grateful for your personal dignity and your determination not only in overcoming physical disabilities, but in emerging as such an effective local and global champion for the rights of women, refugees, persons with disabilities, and so many others. We really honor you because you are going beyond the expectations that were set for you in your life, and by doing so you are breaking down barriers not only for your fellow Turkish citizens but for women and men everywhere. (Applause.)

Well, I don’t know about you, but I always come away from this event not only inspired, which I think you’d have to be brain dead not to be inspired – (laughter) – but also challenged. Because after all, we must ask ourselves, “What are we doing? What are we doing to further justice and dignity and freedom, human rights and women’s rights? What more can we do? And we have different talents. We are at different stages in life. But each of us can make a contribution. And I hope that when you think about what is possible for you, you will remember these women and their stories.

So we wish to congratulate our honorees, to thank our Nobel Laureates, to thank Mrs. Obama for once again joining us and giving so much emphasis to the concerns and needs of women and girls here and everywhere. But I also have to say I would hope someday within my lifetime to see that we no longer had to do events like this, that we no longer had to honor women for taking the actions they have taken – (applause) – because we would continue advancing on the great unfinished business of human history, that women and girls are respected and are given the right to fulfill their own God-given potential.

That is my hope, and that is what each of these women in her own way is working toward, to be accepted for who she is, to be respected for the work she does, to be a contributor to that better future that we all hope and pray for. So let’s leave from today with a new resolve to do everything we can to hasten the arrival of that future. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: And now to say a few words on behalf of all of the Women of Courage, our awardee from Burma, Zin, come on up here. And I know you all want to hear from her. (Applause.)

MS. AUNG: Good morning, everybody. First of all, I would like to start by thanking the Secretary of State Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the Department of State, and we are honored to be with the First Lady Mrs. Obama. And also, I am very pleased as I am here getting an opportunity to speak on the behalf of the Women of Courage awardees. Though we are from different parts of the world, we meet and we came here with the same shared goals, that is to stand for justice, peace, and freedom. I dare to speak that this award encouraged not only for us but also for all of the women who want to change the unjust and unreasonable practice of their society.

For Burma, it is now very critical time for democratic reform, and it is also the time to ask the questions: What is the role of women in democratic reform, and how much we can do? Fortunately, we already have an inspiring women leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. In traditional society, the (inaudible) of the role of the women is that women just became wives, which means women are objectives of choice of men. Actually, the ability to choose is the only significant differences between human and other creatures. We women are human and so we much choose what we want to become or what we want to have in our lives. Those women of courage are now here and it is great pleasure for me to be in front of them. And we are here to appreciate, to initiate the sisterhood of the future leaders.

Finally, I would like to appreciate the hospitality of the United States and I would like to appreciate the United States Embassy in Burma because of their great effort to get my passport so that I – (laughter) -- am here right now. (Applause.)

Let me stop by saying that when we dream a single dream together, dream comes true. Let’s dream together for our future for the better world.

Thank you. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: And so everyone, as Zin said, and thank you for that, the sisterhood of future and present leaders, they are all. I want to thank on behalf of all of us, all of you for joining us today, and I want to thank our colleagues throughout the State Department and particularly in our embassies around the world who did so much to make this day possible. Now if you could all just stay seated for a few moments as we take a group photo, and allow the guests to leave the stage, and then you can head for the doors. Thank you all so much. (Applause.)

PRN: 2012/356