Iran protesters and Jordan activist among those honoured at White House

Jill Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed International Women of Courage Award 2023 recipients

The State Department will honour women and girl protesters in Iran with the Madeleine Albright Honourary Group Award for the “courage and defiance” they showed in standing up to the clerical regime. AFP
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The US State Department on Wednesday honoured 11 women for “exceptional courage, strength and leadership” to mark International Women's Day.

The award, now in its 17th year, recognises global leaders who advocate peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women's empowerment, “often at great personal risk and sacrifice”.

It was created by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice during the administration of George W Bush.

It is the first time the ceremony has taken place at the White House. First lady Jill Biden addressed the event.

"Again and again and again, [girls] wake up to find a world made for someone else and watch their brothers and their fathers … rise and grow up," Ms Biden said.

"And they are told to shrink, told that they're not good enough, not strong enough, not worthy of the lives that they dream about.

"But today, we're here to tell girls everywhere the truth that they need to hear.

"Yes, you matter … and that's why we wanted to bring the leaders who we are honouring today and the stories that they share to the biggest stage we could — the White House."

This year is also the first time the award was given to a group, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his opening remarks.

Named for the late secretary of state, the Madeleine Albright Honorary Group Award was given to the women and girls protesting in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini, for the “courage and defiance” they showed in standing up to the regime.

"They are faced with extraordinary challenges that as you learn about them … [they] are humble," Mr Blinken said.

"They, their loved ones, in many cases have endured harassment, they've endured violence, some have been imprisoned."

US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield presented the group award, praising the courage of the protesters and chastising the Iranian regime.

"The Iranian government probably thought this would just be a note in the long record of violence and discrimination against women," Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.

"This time it was different. The Iranian people, led by women, took to the streets in peaceful protest."

She repeated the UN's dedication to hold those complicit accountable.

"To all the women and girls across Iran, know this: we will continue to stand in your fight for women, for life and for freedom."

Also speaking were deputy secretary of defence Kathleen Hicks, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and honouree Malaysian Senator Datuk Ras Adiba Radzi, who spoke on behalf of the group.

"It is vital for all parties to respect the contribution of women in all areas, economy, social politics and culture, where involvement is crucial, as they are an important asset to a country," Ms Radzi said.

She has spent most of her professional life advancing and promoting human rights, using her platforms to shed light on injustices in society.

Ms Radzi became paralysed from the waist down after a car accident and a brutal assault six years later, and since she has committed her life to fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.

She also became a national Paralympic sharpshooter and earned a spot in the Malaysian Book of Records for travelling 420 kilometres in 13 days in her wheelchair.

Here are the other women honoured this year:

Zakira Hekmat — Afghanistan

The founder of the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association in Turkey was born into a displaced people's camp in her native Afghanistan, secretly finishing high school under Taliban rule.

After studying medicine in Turkey, she founded a refugee organisation that has helped countless Afghan women, girls and minorities gain access to refugee protection and asylum.

“Courage for me is not just a momentary act but a continuous journey of pushing against the obstacles and striving to create change in society,” Dr Hekmat said.

Alba Rueda — Argentina

Argentina’s special envoy for sexual orientation and gender identity in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship was one of the driving forces behind her country's executive order on the transgender labour quota, which mandates at least 1 per cent of workers in the national public sector must be transgender.

Daniele Darlan — Central African Republic

The former president of the Central African Republic’s Constitutional Court was removed by the government after issuing a decision in which she said methods proposed to redraft the constitution were not legally sound.

Throughout her decades of legal experience, she has championed equality and transparency in her country's judicial system through coups and years of civil conflict, earning her the nickname “Woman of Iron”.

Doris Rios — Costa Rica

Ms Rios, a member of the China Kicha indigenous community, is involved in several initiatives that have helped to improve indigenous people's lives.

The vice president of the National Indigenous Board of Costa Rica also acts as a consultant for government officials and civil society on how development projects or legislation may affect indigenous territories.

“Courage is to raise your voice in spite of fear, tears, and pain,” Ms Rios said.

Meaza Mohammed — Ethiopia

A veteran Ethiopian journalist, Mohammed is the founder of Roha TV, an independent YouTube-based news and information channel.

Her reporting has included coverage of the survivors of gender-based violence in the conflict in Tigray. She has also advocated accountability for human rights abuses during the war, despite being arrested repeatedly.

Hadeel Abdel Aziz — Jordan

The human rights activist is a frontline defender of Jordan’s most marginalised, including children, refugees, migrants and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

Through her organisation, Justice Centre for Legal Aid, Ms Abdel Aziz has built a nationwide network of clinics that provide services to thousands of vulnerable people every year, including women detained “for their own protection” from so-called honour crimes.

“Finding the strength to withstand adversity, and to make difficult decisions not because you are unaware of the risks, but because you are driven towards a bigger dream” is how she defines courage.

Bakhytzhan Toregozhina — Kazakhstan

A civil society activist, Ms Toregozhina has campaigned for the protection of fundamental human rights in Kazakhstan for nearly 25 years, representing victims of torture, abuse and politicised repression. As the head of the Qantar 2022 organisation, she has worked to assist victims and document human rights abuses associated with the widespread unrest that occurred in the country last January.

“Having courage makes the invisible, visible,” she said.

Brig Gen Bolor Ganbold — Mongolia

In almost three decades of service to her country, Brig Gen Ganbold has broken a number of gender barriers, from becoming the first female cadet admitted to the Military University of Mongolia to being Mongolia’s first female staff officer assigned to a UN Peacekeeping Operation. In March 2022, she became the first female general in the Mongolian Armed Forces. She has worked with UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, Chad and South Sudan, and has worked to promote gender equality in areas of the Mongolian armed forces.

Bianka Zalewska — Poland

The humanitarian and journalist has documented Russian aggression in Ukraine since 2014 and advocated for Ukrainians for more than a decade. Despite sustaining life-threatening injuries after coming under fire from Russian forces, disinformation campaigns and online threats, Zalewska has continued her work inside Ukraine and has tirelessly advocated the inclusion of Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

Zalewska defines courage as “not the lack of fear, but the ability to act in spite of it”.

Yuliia Paievska — Ukraine

Originally a designer and athlete, Ms Paievska founded the volunteer ambulance corps “Taira's Angels”, providing tactical medical training on the Donbas front lines from 2014 to 2018. She is best known for her work secretly filming and smuggling out videos documenting atrocities committed by Russian forces in Mariupol, where she was jailed for three months. Following her release, she has campaigned for Ukrainian democracy and independence both at home and abroad.

Updated: March 08, 2023, 9:20 PM