Remarks at the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony
Good morning, everybody, and welcome. And Cathy, thank you so much for the spectacular job that you are doing. I can’t think of anybody better suited to work on the State Department’s top priorities, and Cathy is really offering extraordinary leadership, encouraging every embassy, every consulate, every bureau, every Foreign Service and civil service officer to integrate gender equality into our work. And I think she has brilliantly zeroed in on and targeted the prevention of gender-based violence, which is one of her lifelong commitments and obviously a commitment that should be shared by everybody.
I want to welcome our distinguished ambassadors who are here visiting with us, and all of you who have taken time to be part of what I think is one of the flagship events that we do here at the State Department.
Each year, we come together on behalf of the Obama Administration and the State Department to recognize women who have made really special, singular contributions to peace, to prosperity, to stability all around the globe. And every one of these women who are here today and those who were celebrated previously have all dedicated their lives to the pursuit of justice.
As a proud father of two daughters and the husband of a strong woman who has invested so much of her passion into this cause, believe me, I know the difference that it makes for women and girls who are empowered to be able to make their own choices.
I will always remember flying back from Kabul during my first year as Secretary, and my staff handed me a letter from a young Afghan girl who had earned a State Department scholarship to study at the American University of Afghanistan. To this girl, personally, the chance for a college education was obviously a priceless opportunity. But in her letter, she didn’t write to me about herself. Instead, she paid tribute to the women in her village and country who had been brave enough and strong enough to stand up for their rights and to insist that they, too, should have access to schooling and be able to participate fully in the political and economic life of their country. There was a line in that young girl’s letter that very much stood out to me. She wrote simply: “I want to be one of them.”
Think about that. That simple desire – to be counted on the side of the people who are pushing for and fighting for justice, fighting for human rights. And I think everybody here will agree, that is exactly how great historic movements are created. It’s how networks are formed that create the platform for epic change. And it’s how progress occurs that actually transforms a dream into reality. It carries with it, needless to say, an enormous responsibility for all of us, for everyone who has the privilege of making a choice about which side you are on. As I look around this room, it’s very clear the choice that you all have made.
And the reason for that choice is pretty straightforward. We will not accept violence against women or the marginalization of women and girls from their communities. We will not tolerate early and forced marriages or the spectacle of little girls with price tags being sold like chattel by terrorists in Syria or Iraq. We will not accept a world where girls are denied education or health care or forced to suffer genital cutting or mutilation.
And to those who say that abusive and exclusionary practices are somehow traditional and that we have no alternative but to allow them, we say with firmness that judgment is just fundamentally flawed and we all have a duty to stop those practices.
The good news is – (applause) – the good news is that over the last years, enormous progress has been made in people coming together and breaking down barriers. And I think everybody here knows that too many of those barriers have existed for too long in too many communities.
This breaking down of barriers has not happened by accident. It’s happened because leading governments, including that of the United States, have made justice for women and girls a core part of our foreign policy. Even more, it is because individual voices around the globe have come together to form a mighty chorus in support of positive change.
Now, before coming down here, I was reviewing the stories of these remarkable women. They are stunning stories. The courage on this stage is moving, profound. And that courage takes all kinds of forms.
This year, we recognize a group of women who are demonstrating courage in three pivotal areas: They are exposing and opposing gender-based violence; they are combatting corruption and strengthening rule of law; and they are promoting justice and human rights for all.
So let me begin with violence against women and girls.
Preventing and dealing with the effects of gender-based violence is a fundamental moral issue; a basic question of right versus wrong. Some issues are colored by nuance and complexity, as we all know – particularly as we know in this building. But this issue is a matter of moral clarity.
Nagham Nawzat Hasan has spent the last 15 years promoting equality for women and providing psychological help to victims of gender-based abuse. Nothing could have preferred – prepared her, however, for the dark days of 2014, when Daesh terrorists swept through communities in northern Iraq, taking captive the women and children of the Yezidi and other minority communities. Older women were summarily executed, killed, and they were dumped in a mass grave. Women and girls were auctioned off, sold into slavery, and forced into sham “marriages,” including girls barely into adolescence. As this horror unfolded, Nagham was among the first to respond. She provided psychological support and health screenings to girls who had escaped. She visited camps for the displaced where she often had to persuade frightened parents to allow their daughters to receive counseling and treatment. And she launched a campaign against sexual abuse called “I am Yezidi – I am against harassment.”
Nagham Nawzat Hasan – (applause). Nagham, for your perseverance in championing the rights of Yezidi women and girls, even in the face of extraordinary adversity, we honor you today as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Sara Hossain is a human rights lawyer in Bangladesh. As executive director of one of her country’s leading NGOs, Sara played a key role in drafting Bangladesh’s first comprehensive legislation on violence against women. She brought landmark cases to the supreme court, challenging such practices as forced veiling, fatwas that inflict degrading punishments on women and girls, and the use of non-medical procedures to judge evidence in rape and sexual assault cases. And she has done all of this in the face of harsh criticism and the threat of violence. I know from my own experience as a prosecutor that success in this kind of endeavor depends not only on knowledge and expertise, but also on the fundamental will to do what is right. And one thing about Sara is clear: Her courage, passion, integrity have earned her the trust and respect of clients and human rights advocates the world over.
Sara Hossain, for empowering women and girls and for giving voice to the voiceless in Bangladesh through your relentless legal advocacy, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.) I’m just thinking they should stand up so you can – (laughter). Yeah, so stand up when they – please. (Applause.)
Combating gender-based violence is one form of courage, obviously, but fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law in a corrupt place is no easy undertaking. Corruption feeds crime, it fuels human trafficking, it starves investment, it destroys faith in legitimate authority, and it fosters extremism. It is an equal opportunity parasite – believe me – that preys on men and women alike, but those responsible for the old ways of doing things are often in need of an awakening from those who see the need for something new.
I’ve been stunned by the levels of corruption in many places that is literally robbing the future from so many young people, stealing whole nations. And in the course of that creating an extraordinary opening for extremism.
So this year, we recognize six women who have used their energy and talent to condemn and expose corruption, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to lend real meaning to the concept rule of law.
Our next honoree was not allowed to travel to the United States. Despite repeated requests, the authorities would not issue her a passport for travel. And so we honor her in absentia. Ni Yulan has paid a steep price for her efforts to assert the legal rights of Chinese citizens. Her outspokenness has led her to imprisonment, during which she was beaten so badly that she became paralyzed from the waist down. But that hasn’t stopped her. She continues to defend the property rights of Beijing residents whose homes have been slated for demolition. And she has launched the Ni Yulan Human Rights Office to connect activists and lawyers across China to advance the cause of justice.
Ni Yulan, for your leadership in advocating for the rule of law and full, equal rights in China, we honor you today as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Zhanna Nemtsova is no stranger to loss. When her father, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was murdered, she demanded a thorough and transparent investigation. At great personal risk, she has spoken out against the officially sanctioned propaganda that spreads lies in her country about those who tell the truth. And she founded the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom to support families of political prisoners in Russia. Last June, after receiving death threats, Zhanna left her homeland. But her work continues, and her example remains an inspiration to all.
Zhanna Nemtsova, for unwavering courage and tireless work to expose corruption and defend the legal rights of Russian citizens, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Debra Baptist-Estrada knows what it’s like to be the only woman in a room. For 20 years, she’s worked in the male-dominated Belize Department of Immigration. She’s been offered bribes and encouraged by her superiors to look the other way. But instead of backing down, she has doubled down by working with U.S. officials to uncover drug and human trafficking operations. Her colleagues have tried to tell her that corruption is natural, but she insists that it’s criminal, saying, quote, “I have no time for bribes and no tolerance for those that do.”
Debra Baptist-Estrada, for your integrity and commitment to good governance in Belize, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Thelma Aldana began her career as a janitor in the family court in Guatemala. But she has demonstrated that with hard work and an utter unwillingness to quit, anything is possible. She earned a law degree at night. She rose through the ranks to become the only woman justice on the supreme court, where she overcame the doubts of her colleagues to create 33 specialized courts for murder and other crimes against women. Since May of 2014, she has served as attorney general, where she has been fearless in investigating and prosecuting corruption cases against officials previously thought untouchable, including the same president who appointed her and his vice president.
Thelma Aldana, for holding the most powerful to account and promoting reforms to make the legal system in Guatemala more accessible to its citizens, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
As internally displaced persons in the turbulent Sudan, Awadeya Mahmoud and her family faced considerable hardship. To earn a little money, Awadeya began selling tea by the roadside. Eventually, she organized her fellow tea sellers to assert their rights and expose the police, who demanded bribes to allow the tea sellers to be able to remain in business. Along the way, Awadeya was arrested and imprisoned for four years. But she never gave up. And what began as a small grassroots effort for reform has now become a movement for economic justice that is some 8,000 persons strong.
Awadeya Mahmoud, for your steadfast efforts to promote legal reform and to advance economic empowerment for women in Sudan, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Nihal Naj Ali Al-Awlaqi knows that peace is more than the absence of conflict. It’s a state of being in which people who might otherwise be enemies are genuinely committed to building a society in which the rights of all are respected. Until recently, the job of negotiating and implementing peace had been dominated by men. But Nihal is a breaker of barriers. She serves as Yemen’s minister of legal affairs – the highest position a woman has held in her country. And she helped draft a constitution for her native Yemen. She has championed the economic inclusion of women and access to education for girls. She’s a professor who has taught women for more than a decade at the University of Aden. And today, she is the only female member of Yemen’s official delegation to peace talks with the Houthi rebels.
So Nihal Naj Ali Al-Awlaqi, for your tireless advocacy for women, peace, and security as your country works towards resolving conflict, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
As I said earlier, it takes guts to oppose gender-based violence and corruption and to promote the rule of law. And I think you can sense that, and we know that from experience. It also takes a special kind of person to stand up for human rights.
This year, we honor six women who are moving the world in the direction of true justice, of wider decency, and of equal rights for all. And I might remind everybody here that there are prisons in various countries that are filled with people who step out to try to do exactly what these women are doing. And so often they are imprisoned in absolute anonymity. You don’t know it, we don’t know it, or someone might know it, but there’s so much happening in so many places – think of the courage of being alone and standing up in the way that these folks have stood up.
Fatimata M’Baye has long been a voice of reason and of tolerance in a country plagued by ethnic tensions. As Mauritania’s first woman attorney, Fatimata has taken on some very tough cases. She’s defended the rights of activists and advocated for the prosecution of human traffickers. She helped draft a law criminalizing slavery. And she represents the “committee of widows,” a group seeking justice for the murder of their husbands during a period of upheaval in the late 1980s. Asked about her role, she says, “I could be born white, yellow, Mongolian, or Kurdish, and I would have recognized myself in each of these. For me the value of the human being is above everything.”
Fatimata M’Baye, for your contributions to the legal protection of human rights in Mauritania and your commitment to the inherent dignity of every single person, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Nisha Ayub has been the target of discrimination and violence in Malaysia for many years, even being imprisoned for three months during which she endured sexual abuse and humiliation. Despite the obstacles, Nisha has dedicated her life to protecting the transgender community through her work with the NGO SEED. She supports sex workers and people living with HIV. She provides legal aid and raises awareness for the persecution of LGBT persons. And she continues to face threats, but remains committed to her work because it is what she cares most about and because she knows it is the right thing to do.
Nisha Ayub, for your extraordinary work to promote societies that are more just, fair, and tolerant regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Rodjaraeg Wattanapanit gives life to the saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. As co-owner of a bookstore and a co-founder of Cafe Democracy in Thailand, she has used her position to promote democracy and freedom of expression at great personal risk. Twice she has been summoned by the authorities to military camps, where she was detained and interrogated. The goal was to intimidate her, but Rodjaraeg refused to surrender to fear. Instead, she reopened her bookstore and continues to host seminars on constitutional rights, free markets, and democracy.
Rodjaraeg Wattanapanit, for your commitment to the democratic rights and freedoms that make societies more peaceful, prosperous, and secure, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Zuzana Stevulova, like all of us, has borne witness to the catastrophe unfolding in Syria and to the plight of the millions of refugees streaming from its ancient lands. But she hasn’t just spoken words about the crisis – she’s doing everything that she can to help. As chairperson of the Human Rights League in Slovakia, Zuzana is providing legal aid and services to migrants and refugees in administrative detention, expulsion, and asylum proceedings. In so doing, she reminds all of us that the true test of justice is its fairness to those who have the least.
Zuzana Stevulova, for your determination to stand up for the rights of refugees in Slovakia and supporting the integration of all and the full acceptance of migrant communities, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Vicky Ntetema has spent years undercover meeting with Tanzanian witch doctors to gather evidence on the growing practice of murdering people with albinism and selling their body parts. This gruesome crime was based on a superstition – propagated by those same witch doctors – that purchases would have good luck. Vicky’s reporting for the BBC exposed the truth. It saved lives and it sparked strong statements of condemnation by Tanzanian officials. She now leads the international NGO Under the Same Sun, which advocates for people with albinism.
Vicky Ntetema, for bringing people with albinism out of the shadows and advocating for their fundamental rights, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
Latifa Ibn Ziaten immigrated to France from Morocco as a teenager, and her son, Imad, proudly served as a French soldier before he was killed in a terrorist attack in 2012. Instead of succumbing to despair, Latifa made a special effort to meet the young people in the housing project where her son’s killer grew up. She created the Imad Association for Youth and Peace to promote interfaith understanding and to help young people in troubled and impoverished communities resist the temptation to extremism. In Latifa’s own words, “Je voudrais sauver ceux qui sont a l’origine de ma souffrance.” “I want to save those who are the cause of my suffering.”
Latifa Ibn Ziaten, for your determination and commitment to the next generation in the fight against violent extremism, we honor you as a woman of courage. (Applause.)
So there you have it, folks – 14 leaders, 14 role models, 14 women of extraordinary courage. One very clear message out of all of this: Don’t accept the unacceptable or wait for someone else to step up. Act in the name of justice, act in the name of tolerance, act in the name of truth.
And I think some have said that everything that’s worth doing is done in faith. This morning, with the example of these extraordinary women in our minds, we will go out of here, I think, with the faith that every abuse exposed by our determination, every example of discrimination righted by our persistence, every challenge overcome by our unity, and every door opened by our vision will inspire others and strengthen the platform on which women and men of courage may stand for generations to come. What an extraordinary group of women. (Applause.)