On March 29, First Lady Melania Trump presented the 2017 Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards to 13 women from around the globe who have transformed their communities in the name of women’s empowerment, often in the face of personal danger.
Although Melania’s speech has been highly publicized, let us take a look at the real heroes of the evening: the women who received the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.
Malebogo Molefhe, from Botswana, became an advocate for female victims of gender-based violence after she was shot eight times by an ex-boyfriend. Although she must now use a wheelchair due to her injuries, her positive mental attitude helped her survive and become an inspiration to others. She described the horrifying story to Botswana’s leading newspaper.
Young recipient Sharmin Akter from Bangladesh received the award for demonstrating courage in refusing early marriage. Akter’s mother wanted her to marry someone her father’s age when she was 15. The U.S. Embassy Dhaka posted a video of her explaining her story.
Another young woman, Rebecca Kabugho from the Democratic Republic of Congo, age 22, received the award for her political and social activism. Once jailed for her political beliefs, she was one of the youngest female prisoners of conscience.
Natalia Ponce de Leon of Colombia started a foundation to defend and protect the human rights of victims of acid attacks after a stalker doused her face and body with sulfuric acid in March 2014. Acid attacks are shockingly common on a global scale with 1,500 attacks reported every year. About 80 percent of the attacks are against women. Her campaign improved legal rights and hospital benefits of acid attack victims. She is the woman standing next to Melania in the featured image.
Major Aichatou Ousmane Issaka also won the first UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award for her work as a peacekeeping soldier in the Nigerian military.
Some received awards for their work through organizations that they founded to benefit the struggling women and children from their communities. Jannat Al Ghezi is the deputy director of The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, and it was a first-time visit to the U.S. for Veronica Simogun, who founded the Family for Change Association in Papua New Guinea. Cindy Arlette Contreras Bautista from Peru was honored for her organization Not One Woman Less, founded in response to the murder of a 16-year-old girl.
Human rights activist Sandya Eknelygoda from Sri Lanka received the award after years of fighting for the rights of the missing, ever since her husband, a journalist, disappeared in 2010. She explained the mission of her campaign.
“Pursuing the truth is not a crime, protecting the perpetrators is.”
Melania Trump presented the award to Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (F.M.A.) for her work in war-torn Syria. Saadet Ozkan, a teacher from Turkey, received the award for her work promoting gender equality. Fadia Najib Thabet, from Yemen, rescued children threatened by war.
One of the award recipients, environmental activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh from Vietnam, could not attend because she is in prison.
In total, 13 women received the IWOC award, although only 12 could walk away with it. First Lady Melania Trump acknowledged each of the women for their courage.
“Ask yourself if you would have the fortitude of spirit, the courage of your convictions and the enormous inner strength required to stand up and fight against such overwhelming odds. Amazingly, each of our honorees has courageously answered ‘Yes’ to those questions. These honorees, who have fought on the front lines against injustice, are true heroes.”
[Featured Image by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images]