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Melania Trump Presents International ‘Women of Courage’ Awards

Women of Courage
The recipients of the 2018 International Women of Courage awards gather for a group photo with first lady Melania Trump, March 23, 2018, at the State Department in Washington. VOA

Outrage, compassion, a desire for justice. These are some of the motivations of 10 women honored by the U.S. State Department this year with the International Women of Courage Award.

Presented their awards in Washington March 23 by first lady Melania Trump, the women include L’Malouma Said, who was born into slavery, became a civil rights activist and is now a deputy in the Mauritanian national assembly. There she has worked for human rights, prison reform, and to improve conditions for Haratines, an ethnic group descended from slaves.

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women of courage
First lady Melania Trump presented the awards. Wikimedia Commons

Helping victims of torture

Another honoree, a Kosovo physician Feride Rushiti, works with the survivors of the massacres, rape and torture from the Kosovo War 1998 and 1999, when Yugoslav and Serbian forces targeted ethnic Albanians suspected of supporting rebel fighters. Rushiti was one of a handful of awardees who spoke recently in Los Angeles.

She said the stories of survivors led her to create the Kosovo Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims.

“The stories of the mothers, the stories of the girls, of children, of parents that I heard really affected me a lot, and sometimes I cried with them,” she said.

Her center uses a multidisciplinary approach to helping refugees, especially women. She said it offers “psychotherapy, medical therapy, legal aid where it’s needed, social support, and empowerment programs “because the majority of those women and girls unfortunately are living in extreme poverty.”

Progress in Rwanda

The 1994 Rwandan genocide spurred the work of another woman, Godelieve Mukasarasi, to bring the perpetrators to justice. She was undeterred when her husband and daughter were murdered after she decided to testify at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

women of courage
Godelieve Mukasarasi of Rwanda, holds up her award presented by first lady Melania Trump at the 2018 International Women of Courage awards, March 23, 2018, at the State Department in Washington. VOA

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She now works with rape victims and their children, organizing “forums where they can meet together and deal with the trauma that they’ve been through,” she explained in French.

Mukasarasi sees progress in her country, saying that more Rwandans today see themselves as Rwandans and identify less with the class or tribal divisions that fueled the 1990s genocide.

A forensic pathologist from Honduras, Julissa Villanueva, was among the honorees who traveled to Los Angeles. She oversees 650 experts in the Honduran Attorney General’s Forensic Medicine Department who use scientific evidence to solve murders and other cases of violent crime, especially against women and children.

Justice in domestic violence

Aiman Umarova, a criminal lawyer from Kazakhstan, works to bring justice to victims of sexual violence in her country. For Kazakh women, says Umarova, domestic violence was long considered a taboo topic.

While old attitudes persist, she says, her country has laws protecting those who speak out, “but many cases finish without suitable compensation for victims.” Compensation can amount to just a few thousand dollars in cases of violent rape, which she says “victimizes the victims a second time.” She says she is fighting to change that.

Janet Elliott of the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles, who worked with the State Department to bring some of the award winners to her city, says these women have shown courage in overcoming violence and persecution. VOA

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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

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

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