Yesterday I was excited to return to the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony at the State Department here in Washington, D.C. These awards honor the critical role women are playing in growing economies and in contributing to peace and stability. Recipients included “Women of Courage” from across the globe who have overcome adversity, and in turn stood up and fought for social justice, human rights and the advancement of women. There was an incredible level of energy and support in the room, and I was humbled to be among these phenomenal women. I was also joined by women I admire deeply: First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, First Lady Ernestina Naadu Mills of Ghana, and First Lady Vanda Pignato of El Salvador.
Two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, spoke at the ceremony, and their words captivated the room. Gbowee realized during Liberia’s second civil war that it is women who bear the greatest burden in prolonged conflicts. She was a pivotal activist in the peace movement, organizing Christian and Muslim women to demonstrate together, and organizing for the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. Known as the “iron woman” and the “mother of the revolution,” Karman is a journalist and human rights activist who has long championed democracy and women’s rights in Yemen, co-founding “Women Journalists Without Chains.” She was among the first to participate and help organize the opposition protests in Yemen. Together, Gbowee and Karmanchallenged everyone to continue to work for women’s rights around the world.
While I listened to the stories of these “Women of Courage,” I was particularly moved by Samar Badawi, a human rights activist in Saudi Arabia and Jineth Bedoya Lima, a journalist in Colombia. These women work on issues that so many of us take for granted, such as women’s suffrage and journalistic freedoms. Samar Badawi lives in one of the world’s most restrictive environments for women. Saudi Arabia has a guardianship system in place, which means that women cannot marry, work, or travel without the permission of a guardian (who is a male relative). In a remarkable landmark case, Badawi herself sued her guardian (her father) for abusing the legal system and preventing her from marrying the suitor of her choice… and she won.
Secretary of State Clinton has cited achievements like Badawi’s and how, “We have made enormous progress in recent history. In the last year alone, women have marched, blogged, tweeted, and risked their lives all in the name of dignity, rights, and opportunity.” Badawi was also the first woman to sue the government and demand the right for women to vote and participate in municipal elections, thereafter launching an online campaign to encourage other Saudi women to file similar suits. Thereafter, a royal decree was issued, allowing women to vote and run for office in future municipal elections. This is just the beginning for Saudi women rights, and surely not the last we have seen of Samar Badawi, who showed how launching an online campaign led all the way to women being able to vote and run for election in Saudi Arabia.
Instigative journalist Jineth Bedoya Limahas also responded to adversity with activism and media in her country of Colombia. While covering a story 12 years ago, Bedoya arrived at a prison to interview a key paramilitary member about an arms struggling network. But, upon arrival, she was kidnapped, drugged, gang raped, and told, “Pay attention. We are sending a message to the press in Colombia.” Instead, Bedoya did not back down. She continued to work as an investigative journalist andhas even taken her case all the way to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking justice not just for herself, but for women across her country. Bedoya is now a spokeswoman of Oxfam’s campaign, “Rape and Other Violence: Take my Body out of the War.” Once physically and emotionally deterred from continuing her vital work as a journalist, Bedoya is using her journalistic influence to draw more attention to the issues of sexual violence and impunity.
Repeatedly during the ceremony, I heard stories like Samar Badawi's and Jineth Bedoya’s— of women who have become an inspiration for all women who are demanding justice in their own cases.
As the First Lady poignantly noted in her remarks at the awards ceremony, Jineth is sending her own message that “she will not back down, she will not give up, and she will never, ever allow her voice to be silenced. It is the same message that these women are sending with every act of courage they commit – the message that injustice will not stand, that inequality will not be tolerated, and that they will not stay silent in the face of evil. To all those who are oppressed and abused and left behind – they are saying, ‘I am standing with you. I am fighting for you. You are not alone.’”
The progress has been monumental, but our work is far from over. And as the President recently noted in a statement in honor of International Women’s Day: “We are committed to a future in which our daughters and sons have equal opportunities to thrive, because when women succeed, communities and countries succeed… On this day, and every day, we stand with the women and men who bravely champion dignity, freedom, and opportunity for all.”
This is what the Council on Women and Girls strives to do every day. We will continually fight alongside these admirable women to help them expose the truth, obtain women’s suffrage and journalistic freedoms, run for office, and ensure that the voices of women all around the world are spoken and heard. We envision women to become champions in their causes, in turn empowering themselves and elevating their communities.
Tina Tchen is Assistant to the President, Chief of Staff to the First Lady, and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.