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US First Lady Melania Trump Presents International Women of Courage Award to 13 women in Washington

The Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award honors women around the world for exhibiting courage and leadership in their advocacy

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First lady Melania Trump presents the 2017 Secretary's of State's International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award to Veronica Simogun from Papua New Guinea, during a ceremony at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais), VOA
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Washington, March 30, 2017: U.S. first lady Melania Trump, in a rare solo public appearance, presented the International Women of Courage Award to 13 women in Washington on Wednesday.

“These honorees on the stage with me have fought for their rights and for the rights of others. Each [of them] battle forces, such as governments, the courts, gender bias, terrorism, war and corruption, and were willing, in each moment, to face harsh penalties including imprisonment and death,” Trump said.

“Together, with the international community, the United States must send a clear message that we are watching. It is therefore our duty to continue to shine the light on each miraculous victory achieved by women— all capable of trying, truly leading the change to fight for those that cannot fight for themselves,” she said.

The Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award honors women around the world for exhibiting courage and leadership in their advocacy for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.

The award often honors women who have been imprisoned, tortured or threatened with death or serious harm for standing up for justice, human rights and the rule of law.

This year, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese green blogger and environmental activist known as “Mother Mushroom,” could not attend because she’s been in prison since October 2016.

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The State Department has consistently called on the government of Vietnam to provide for Quynh’s immediate release.

“We believe that international recognition for her courage and advocacy will help bring attention to her work to address corruption and promote human rights in Vietnam,” State Department East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau spokesperson Grace Choi told VOA.

“We hope that the award will shed a spotlight on the issue of freedom of expression, including on the Internet, in Vietnam,” Choi added.

In Colombia, a law that increases penalties on attackers who use chemical agents was passed in January of 2016, bearing the name of Natalia Ponce de Leon. She survived an acid attack three years ago and has been an advocate for the rights of burn victims. The law also requires the ministry of health to improve training in hospital burn units for acid attacks and other burn victims.

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“During my recovery, I understood that I had two options: the easy way, I could lie in bed, filling myself up with hate and anger; or the hard way, standing strong and making all these tragedies something greater. And so I did,” Natalia Ponce de Leon told an audience at the State Department.

Major Aichatou Ousmane Issaka became one of the first women in Niger to join the army in 1996. She was recognized for her advocacy to raise awareness about gender sensitivities in conflict areas.

Traveling to the United States for the first time, Veronica Simogun from Papua New Guinea was honored for her campaign to protect women from gender based violence.

“I am fighting for equality, gender justice in my country. I deal with these cases all the time. There’s a lot of abuses and a lot of discrimination,” Simogun told VOA.

“Women’s voices need to be heard, and there should be equality for women and children.”

Since its creation in 2007, the program has awarded more than 100 women from 60 countries.

Trump presented the awards alongside Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon.

After the ceremony, the women will travel to a number of American cities on individual International Visitor Leadership Programs before reconvening in Los Angeles to discuss further collaboration to improve the lives of women and girls across the globe.

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The 2017 awardees are:

Sharmin Akter, Activist Against Early/ Forced Marriage, Bangladesh
Malebogo Molefhe, Human Rights Activist, Botswana
Natalia Ponce de Leon, President, Natalia Ponce de Leon Foundation, Colombia
Rebecca Kabugho, Political and Social Activist, Democratic Republic of Congo
Jannat Al Ghezi, Deputy Director of The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Iraq
Major Aichatou Ousmane Issaka, Deputy Director of Social Work at the Military Hospital of Niamey, Niger
Veronica Simogun, Director and Founder, Family for Change Association, Papua New Guinea
Cindy Arlette Contreras Bautista, Lawyer and Founder of Not One Woman Less, Peru
Sandya Eknelygoda, Human Rights Activist, Sri Lanka
Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh, Member, Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (F.M.A.), Syria
Saadet Ozkan, Educator and Gender Activist, Turkey
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Blogger and Environmental Activist, Vietnam
Fadia Najib Thabet, Human Rights Activist, Yemen
-(VOA)

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Can Flourishing Islamic State (ISIS) be Stopped in Afghanistan?

The truth about IS and Afghanistan is definitely no picnic

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Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016. The rise of IS in Afghanistan has become such a priority that U.S. and Afghan forces sometimes support the Taliban while battling IS, VOA
  • Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups
  • Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops
  • In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS

June 25, 2017: The Islamic State group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion leads to mistakes

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It’s not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Confusing scenarios

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as IS is known in Afghanistan remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Families displaced

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

ALSO READ: Flashback to Terror: 1993 Mumbai Blasts Judgement to Hail on June 27 After 24 Years

Recruiting unemployed youths

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab district

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Hit-and-hide strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said. (VOA)