By Linsey Armstrong

In March, the Department of State celebrated Women’s History Month through a host of inspiring activities and initiatives. This year, the Department kicked off the celebrations with the 13th Annual Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award, which honors exceptional women from every region around the world. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo hosted the ceremony on March 7 in Washington, D.C. First lady of the United States Melania Trump joined the Secretary in presenting the awards to 10 women and she gave remarks to a full house in the Dean Acheson Auditorium. This event brought together members of the diplomatic community; White House, State Department and other government officials; civil society; nongovernmental and human rights organizations; academia; and members of Congress. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) Assistant Secretary Marie Royce made closing remarks.

International Visitor Leadership Program awardees are shown with leadership and staff from the Secretary’s Office for Global Women’s Issues at an event, March 19, in Los Angeles. Photo by Melissa Kobe

Established in 2007, the Secretary of State’s IWOC Award honors women who have demonstrated extraordinary courage and leadership in advocating for social justice, human rights and the advancement of women and girls, often at great personal risk. To date, the United States has now honored more than 130 women from more than 70 countries in every region of the world. 

Annually, the Secretary’s Office for Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) invites, via cable, U.S. embassies and consulates overseas to nominate courageous women who are making a positive impact in their respective countries. Department of State colleagues at posts are vital to this recognition effort and have demonstrated their passion over the years by nominating women from all walks of life, from grassroots communities to government officials to women in the military. For the 2019 IWOC Award cycle, S/GWI received more than 50 exceptionally strong nominations.

Each year, throughout the awards cycle, S/GWI works to collect and review nominations, as well as coordinate the ceremony. After receiving approval from the Secretary, S/GWI cooperated with embassies and consulates to recognize the chosen award winners. The office also collaborated with colleagues in ECA and other bureaus and offices to prepare for the event, its corresponding reception and other aspects of the awardees’ stay in the U.S.

This year, 10 remarkable women were honored. Their admirable work is diverse among awardees. Not only have these women dedicated their lives to pursuing justice, but they’ve often done so in the face of incredible adversity and risk, making them all the more deserving of the IWOC Award.

Anna Henga of Tanzania receives her award from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and first lady Melania Trump at the International Women of Courage Award ceremony, March 7, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Ron Pryzsucha

The 2019 IWOC Award recipients are: Razia Sultana of Bangladesh, a lawyer and educator specializing in trauma, mass rape and the trafficking of Rohingya women and girls; Naw K’nyaw Paw of Myanmar, a peace activist and general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, an ethnic women’s organization supporting gender equality and indigenous people’s rights in Myanmar; Moumina Houssein Darar of Djibouti, a member of the Djiboutian National Police Force leading high-profile anti-terrorism investigations; Magda “Mama Maggie” Gobran of Egypt, founder of Stephen’s Children, a nongovernmental organization that serves the most impoverished urban slums and rural villages in Egypt regardless of their people’s color, creed or faith; Col. Khalida Khalaf Hanna al-Twal of Jordan, chief of the Public Security Directorate’s Women’s Police Department; Olivera Lakić of Montenegro, an investigative reporter covering stories of crime and corruption in her country; Flor de María Vega Zapata of Peru, national coordinator for Environmental Prosecutors, leading a team to investigate and prosecute transnational criminal organizations engaged in illegal mining and logging; Marini de Livera of Sri Lanka, founder and chairperson of Sisters at Law, where she serves as a pro bono lawyer for women and child victims of crime; Anna Henga of Tanzania, a lawyer and human rights activist focusing on issues affecting women and children, such as female genital mutilation/cutting; and Sister Orla Treacy of Ireland (nominated by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See), who started a girls-only boarding school in South Sudan. 

In addition to the 10 awardees, Secretary Pompeo paid special tribute to the women of Iran and Kateryna Handzyuk of Ukraine. Over the past year, numerous courageous Iranian women have stood and protested the mandatory hijab law by peacefully removing their headscarves in public and demanding the freedom to choose what they wear. They have inspired men and women from within their communities and abroad to stand in solidarity with them. Seizing the world’s attention, these women have risked harassment and attacks by Iran’s morality police, as well as arrest and torture at the hands of Iran’s security and intelligence forces.

Kateryna Handziuk of Ukraine epitomized courage—dedicating her life to uncovering and calling out corruption wherever she saw it. Even immediately after a brutal acid attack against her—which ultimately claimed her life three painful months later—Kateryna refused to be silenced. From her hospital bed, she demanded justice, setting a powerful example for her fellow citizens and for all of us.

Through the Department’s IVLP, awardees create lasting bonds and expand their professional networks globally. Some of the 2019 award recipients, (from left) Marini de Livera, Moumina Houssein Dara, Col. Khalida Khalaf Hanna al-Twal and Anna Henga pose for a photo. Photo by Brittany Lynk

In his remarks at the March ceremony, Secretary Pompeo emphasized the importance of women’s empowerment to U.S. national security and foreign policy goals, highlighting the inspirational stories of the award recipients and honorees. First lady Melania Trump also discussed the importance of recognizing the work of women throughout time and celebrated recent milestones for women, including that more women are serving in Congress today than at any other time in history and that women’s unemployment is at a 65-year low. One 2019 Awardee, Naw K’nyaw Paw of Myanmar, also addressed the audience during the ceremony, discussing her work on achieving peace and promoting a united civilian government in Myanmar, while improving the lives of women and children in conflict-affected communities in Karen State.

The International Women of Courage Award continue to serve as an outstanding example of recognizing brave and courageous women around the world for their inspiring work. The Secretary’s Office for Global Women’s Issues takes pride in facilitating the nomination and award processes in conjunction with Department colleagues throughout Women’s History Month. It is more than an event, rather it serves as a call to action reflecting the United States’ ongoing commitment to promoting gender equality and advancing the status of women and girls as a key foreign policy priority. The Department will continue to work to advance the rights of women and girls, well aware that when we do, we all stand to gain.

For more information about the International Women of Courage Award and the Office of Global Women’s Issues, check out their video highlighting the award, visit their website, and follow S/GWI on Twitter and Facebook.

Linsey Armstrong is a former intern in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

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