An official website of the United States government

Women Honored as Defenders of Democracy, Human Rights
June 7, 2012

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
June 6, 2012

Young women holding weapons
In 1997, 2,000 girls were among Liberian fighters surrendering weapons to U.N. peacekeepers. Human rights honoree Rosana Schaack helped them return to normal life.

Giving a livelihood to an impoverished woman; making a film to expose families who give away their daughters to pay a debt; or rebuilding the lives of young women who have served as soldiers or prostitutes since childhood.These are the acts of women who are providing the leadership for change in troubled communities around the world. They are women who are recognized with Global Leadership Awards from the organization Vital Voices, which works in more than 140 countries to help women strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity and protect human rights.

Vital Voices President Alyse Nelson said the nine women honored in 2012 have given their communities the right leadership at the right time.

“That inclusiveness, that cause-driven-ness, that ability to cross lines that usually divide,” Nelson said, “those abilities are exactly what our world needs to heal.”

Nelson spoke June 5 in Washington at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a day before the honorees will accept their awards in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Honoree Samar Minallah Khan of Pakistan studied anthropology but became a documentary filmmaker to expose the rural customs that violated the rights of women.

“I realized that if you take these documentaries to the communities, to the rural areas, and used them as a tool to generate awareness and dialogue, that would actually help in breaking silence around issues that we usually don’t talk about publicly or openly,” Khan told an Institute of Peace audience.

Giving daughters away to serve as compensation on a debt or to settle disputes is known in Afghanistan and Pakistan as swara, which had been openly practiced for generations. Thanks in part to Khan’s film, Pakistani legislators voted in 2004 to abolish the practice.

Khan has also produced documentary films on human trafficking, child domestic labor and the importance of education for girls.

In Liberia, 2,000 girl soldiers turned in their arms to U.N. peacekeepers at the end of a 14-year civil war. Rosana Schaack was a nurse- turned-activist who helped rehabilitate those young soldiers, some of whom were as young as 7 when they were abducted by a rebel army.

“They were used as wives; they were sex slaves, they were young mothers,” Schaack said. She formed a nonprofit organization, Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness (THINK Inc.) to help address Liberia’s post-war problems.

THINK provided a range of services to help veteran child soldiers integrate back into normal life, including shelter, medical care, counseling, education and life-skills training.

The struggle to earn a basic living in the small Pacific Island of Samoa was once so challenging that young people left their homes and moved to other places for jobs. Adimaimalaga Tafuna’i wanted to stop that cycle of emigration with a way for village people to generate income to better educate, feed and care for their families.

Identifying and cultivating the products that thrive only in a tropical climate was the key, and Tafuna’i established a business promotion organization to help village people find bigger markets for goods such as coconut oil and noni juice. The Samoans established what Tafuna’i calls “a really great relationship” with The Body Shop, a U.K-based company specializing in skin, cosmetic and grooming products made from natural ingredients.

“The quantities that they require keeps growing and we need to look more outside Samoa, which is what we are doing now and trying to establish relationships with other small Pacific countries,” Tafuna’i told the Institute of Peace audience.

Women in Business Development Inc. was successful in Samoa, Tafuna’i said, because it was established by Samoans who understand the culture and were willing to listen to the villagers. Too often, she said, well-intended business people go to small countries with visions of speeding development using inappropriate methods that may have been successful elsewhere, but not among small, isolated populations found in Pacific island nations.

Vital Voices also honors women who played roles in various countries involved in the 2011 Arab Spring movement. Libyan human rights lawyer Salwa Bugaighis had a longstanding record of defending political prisoners and was an organizer of the demonstrations in Benghazi that served as the impetus that ultimately led to the end of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime.

She recalled standing in a crowd at an early demonstration and hearing word that a young man had been killed by Qadhafi troops close to where she stood. “At that time, it turned from protesting to revolution,” Bugaighis said. “You did not feel fear inside you. You want to go to finish your mission.”

Bugaighis was a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council, but resigned the post after several months to protest what she perceived as a lack of women in the new government.

Vital Voices recognized the leadership of several other women also:

Ruth Zavaleta Salgado, a Mexican politician; Shatha Al-Harazi, a Yemeni journalist; Manal al-Sharif, a women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia; Marianne Nagui Hanna Ibrahim, an Egyptian advocate of human rights and social peace; and Amira Yahyaoui, a blogger and an advocate for greater freedom of expression in her native Tunisia.