By Janet Ekstract
NEW YORK – On Monday, the 16th Annual Women of Courage Awards paid tribute to 12 female honorees who joined via video link due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The awards ceremony was hosted by Katrina Fotovat, a senior official for the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Fotowat said: “I am deeply honored to join you today in recognizing the awe-inspiring achievements and contributions made by the 2022 Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage.” She said that the U.S. “believes that when women and girls are empowered and meaningfully participate in every sector of life, we are all safer, more prosperous, and secure.” Fotowat added that the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues is “tasked with an important mandate: ensuring that the rights and empowerment of women and girls, in all their diversity.” Fotowat said this is promoted throughout U.S. foreign policy “despite the existence of significant barriers, and especially this year with no short list of crises, from Ukraine to Afghanistan. “ Fotowat commented: ”Women and girls around the world have persisted in making massive strides in advancing human rights, gender equity and equality, peace and security, rule of law, accountability, and so much more.
She explained that her office for 16 years has supported U.S. secretaries of state in recognizing over “170 remarkable women representing over 80 countries as International Women of Courage. To this year’s International Women of Courage awardees, I want to express my sincerest admiration and deepest appreciation for your tireless work and advocacy to advance the rights of women and girls in the face of serious risk and unforgettable sacrifice. Your courage, strength, and leadership are truly inspiring, and the United States is deeply committed and privileged to honor and support you, along with so many other brave women and girls determined to ensure that every person can live a dignified, secure, and fulfilling life. “
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened the ceremony by paying tribute to First Lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden, who he said “has been such a powerful advocate for women and girls for her entire career and is elevating these issues as our First Lady.” Blinken also paid tribute to Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield who represents the U.S. at the UN who Blinken said “every day with skill, with integrity, with a powerful voice for these issues and virtually every other issue that is before the United Nations.” Blinken praised Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affiars Lee Satterfield for “connecting this year’s honorees with people across the United States for learning and collaboration.” He also praised Executive Director of the White House Gender Policy Council, Jen Klein who Blinken called “a true partner to the State Department.”
Blinken also praised Rina Amiri who he said is “special envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights. As women and girls face continuing restrictions on their education, employment, freedom of speech, ability to move freely around their communities and country, Rina is helping lead our efforts to advocate for their rights and their freedoms.”
Before introducing the honorees, the secretary of state lauded the courageous efforts of Ukrainian women. He mentioned Ruslana Lyzhychko, a singer, democracy leader in Ukraine and a 2014 International Women of Courage awardee. Blinken said: “During the EuroMaidan protests in 2013, Ruslana performed the Ukrainian national anthem every night – despite death threats – to cheer other protesters, to encourage nonviolence. She’s in Ukraine now, using her voice to share information about the war. Like Ruslana, this year’s Women of Courage are making our world more peaceful, more just.”
Blinken added: “Across four continents they’re tackling complex challenges, from organized crime to environmental degradation. They’re advancing the rights of women, girls, LGBTQI+ people, and other marginalized groups. And despite harassment, violence, imprisonment, they persist.” The secretary of state said: “I am deeply honored to introduce and celebrate these remarkable women.” Blinken added: “These twelve women are separated by thousands of miles – but they are united in their dedication to serving their countries and communities with extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice.
The 12 honorees include Simone Sibilio do Nascimento, a Brazilian prosecutor from Rio de Janeiro – the first woman to lead the state’s organized crime unit, prosecuting high-profile cases of gender-based violence and attacks on activists. Second honoree, Cape Town, South Africa honoree Roegschanda Pascoe – a community leader who tirelessly worked to reduce gang violence despite three assassination attempts, her work continues. The third honoree, Bangladeshi environmental lawyer Rizwana Hasan led successful campaigns against large corporations destroying forests and the shrimping industry. Her work continues.
The fourth honoree Liberian Facia Boyenoh-Harris who after Liberia’s civil war where violence against women was rife, dedicated herself to reducing gender-based violence and increasing women’s political participation. She successfully organized and organizes multitudes of marches supporting women that make a difference. Fifth honoree Ei Thinzar Maung, a democracy activist in Burma was imprisoned for organizing a 400-mile march protesting a ban on student unios and teaching in ethnic minority languages. During the regime’s 2021 crackdown, Maung led other protests despite a warrant for her arrest. She is currently in hiding, continuing to advocate against regime oppression in Burma.
The sixth honoree, a social leader targeted for assassination – Josefina Kinger Zufiiga promotes ecotourism with her NGO on Colombia’s Pacific coast that has a history of conflict with narcotraffickers and illegal armed groups. Her NGO brings locals and businesses together to support tourism protecting the environment, creating jobs empowering Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities. Her education center trains youth to continue her work. Seventh honoree, Moldovan Doina Gherman, despite great opposition,, a parliamentarian who campaigned for Moldova to ratify the Istanbul Convention recognizing gender-based violence as a human rights violation. Moldova has one of the world’s highest rates of women’s political representation.
The eighth honoree Iraqi Taif Sami Mohammed who is deputy finance minister and director general of the budget department has earned the nickname “Iron Woman” due to her persistent efforts to end corruption. Despite threats, she has stopped multiple types of major corruption schemes in Iraq. Ninth honoree Vietnamese Pham Doan Trang was sentenced to nine years in prison in December 2021 for writing on democracy and human rights. When out of fear, media outlets stopped printing her work, she founded her own media outlet. Despite constant threats she continued educating others about their rights. Her immediate release is called for.
The tenth honoree Romanian Carmen Gheorghe fights for the rights of Roma women and girls who are subjects of racism, sexism, social exclusion, high rates of gender-based violence including child and forced marriage Despite hostility against her efforts, Carmen supports Roman women petitioning for equal access to education, justice and other sectors. Eleventh honoree Nepalese trans-woman Bhumika Shrestha has fought for Nepal to add a non-binary option to a person’s gender identity. In 2007, the supreme court made that change and Bhumika later became the first trans-person in Nepal to travel with an updated passport. She continues to fight for expanded access to medical, economic and legal services for LGBTQ people in Nepal.
Final honoree, Libyan Najla Mangoush – Libya’s first female foreign minister is an expert in conflict resolution who was part of the transitional council that governed Libya in 2011. In 2021, she brought top military representatives from both sides together. The following month they agreed to a complete withdrawal of all foreign forces, fighters ad mercenaries from Libya – a process that is ongoing.
Secretary Blinken concluded: “The United States stands with them. We’ve seen the remarkable progress they’ve made toward building peace, building security, building equality, building justice. And through our diplomacy, we’re working alongside them to advance those goals.
We also want to lift up other women like them. We know there are future Facias, and Bhumikas, and Carmens who share many of the same aspirations – and face many of the same obstacles”