Remarks at the International Women of Courage Awards

By:  John Kerry
Date: March 8, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Good afternoon, Mrs. Obama, Secretary Kerry, Mrs. Heinz Kerry, Secretary Sebelius, Congresswoman Edwards, Minister Collins of Australia, all of Your Excellencies with us today, distinguished guests, welcome to the U.S. Department of State for the Seventh Annual Celebration of the Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Awards. To mark the 102nd anniversary of International Women's Day, we celebrate women of courage from Afghanistan, China, Honduras, India, Nigeria, Russia, Somalia, Syria, and Vietnam -- all countries I have had the privilege of visiting and meeting with extraordinary women.
Today I have the honor of introducing our extraordinary woman, our First Lady Michelle Obama. (Applause.) And I know our current Secretary of State will permit me to say that we are very clear here at the State Department; we are big fans of America's First Ladies. (Laughter and applause.)

Throughout her life and as First Lady, Michelle Obama has always stepped up. When faced with a challenge, she not only faces it, she joins forces with those around her to make America and the world a better place. Whether it is ensuring our military men and women and their families are cared for and have jobs to return to, encouraging our young people to Let's Move, or doing the Dougie on late-night television -- (laughter) -- she engages us, she inspires us, and she empowers all of us to step up.

Michelle Obama is about doing the right thing. She has stepped up her efforts on behalf of the American people and served alongside her husband with great distinction. And in a moment of personal privilege, I want to thank her for being another kind of woman of courage that is true of many of the women here on the stage and here in the hall and throughout the world, and that is being a great mom. (Applause.) Every single day, women get up and try to raise their families and have a good life for their children, and she is a role model for all of us in that regard.

So I hope you will please join me in welcoming the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)

(The First Lady makes remarks.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Michelle, thank you very, very much for extraordinarily warm and generous words of introduction. I'm very proud to be working with the President and with you. And we are all of us here, and throughout the country and the world, extraordinarily grateful for the remarkable and inspiring job that you are doing as the First Lady of our nation. Thank you for that. It's amazing. (Applause.)

We all talk about passionate advocates for women and girls, both in our country and around the world. And I think everyone here will agree that at the top of that list we will find our First Lady, Michelle Obama. And we're grateful for her leadership.

It's an honor for me today to be on this stage with these remarkable, indeed extraordinary, women. And I want to recognize, if I may, very quickly another woman of courage. The First Lady was kind enough to introduce her, but she marched against apartheid as a student in South Africa, and she worked hard in the decades since to improve the lives of women with respect to the environment and health, and I am delighted to call my wife, Teresa, on stage. (Applause.)

As you know, I returned less than 48 hours ago from Europe and the Middle East, where I visited the countries that represent a very broad spectrum of progress on gender equality. And I met with dozens of leaders. But I also listened to a lot of everyday citizens, people who, like today's honorees, know that you don't have to be elected or appointed in order to make a difference.

I spoke with one young woman at a coffeehouse in Berlin. She is Muslim, and told me that she's part of an organization of teenagers who have created a dialogue about equality and tolerance. So, my friends, steps from the Reichstag and the markings -- the old markings and brick of the Berlin Wall, a young Muslim woman today proudly stands up with her peers to map a very different, and better, more open future. Her activism and her fearlessness spoke to me about a special kind of courage, courage that I saw years ago in Aung San Suu Kyi when I met her in her home when she was confined in Burma, or the courage I saw again in four Burmese women, women who were the first people I met right after I had been sworn in as Secretary of State, and I met in this building on my third day as Secretary. Two of them had been political prisoners, and today all of them are giving back to the very country that had once confined them.

It's courage. And it's not just the courage that you see in women in the way that Michelle Obama just described -- the courage of people raising kids, certainly women raising them -- but it is also the courage of every man who defends his daughter's right to an equal education, or every brother who challenges a law that keeps his sister from owning property or opening a business, or every husband who not only promises that the cycle of domestic violence can stop with him, but who proves it.

I see that courage and I see that hope in every woman on this stage -- and you will learn that in a moment -- and in the testimony of the four honorees who cannot be here today because of the repression and the intimidation that still festers around the world. I see how much work we still have to do, and so do you. One of our awardees is in hiding. One is in prison. Another is locked under house arrest. And we present a fourth award posthumously for a brave woman whose life was brazenly stolen by brutal violence.

Their cause is our cause. Women's issues, as we know, are more than just women's issues. They're families' issues, they're economic issues, they're security issues, they're justice issues. And they matter to all of us, men as well as women, boys as well as girls, those of us who live in free countries as well as those of us who don't. That's why, including with the work of Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Melanne Verveer, the Obama Administration has put advancing the status of women and girls right at the center of America's foreign policy. (Applause.)

President Obama created the White House Council on Women and Girls in order to help prioritize gender equality in the work of every single federal agency. Secretary Clinton named the first ambassador at large for global women's issues, and made protecting the rights of women and girls a signature of her work. And one of the first things that I was privileged and excited to do, together with Barbara Boxer, was, when I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, establish a new subcommittee on global women's issues. From the White House to the State Department to the Senate, women and girls across the world have more champions in American government than ever before. And we can be proud of that. (Applause.)

But still, everybody here knows we have to do more. Political stability -- excuse me -- peace, and prosperity all require every one of us to do what we can to advance human rights for everyone, regardless of their gender, or ours. And that is and will remain a fundamental priority of the Department of State and the foreign policy of the United States.

Today I am proud to announce a new effort to that end. We are launching a Full Participation Fund to support bureaus within the State Department and embassies around the globe that develop innovative ways to be able to achieve gender equality in the work that they do. The fund will supply seed money for new initiatives or expand projects that are already underway but have proven themselves to be very successful.

I just share with you that before I was born, my mother volunteered as a Red Cross nurse in Europe, where she happened to be as an American at the dawn of World War II. And when the Nazis invaded France, she fled Paris and made her way to Lisbon, Portugal, and ultimately found a way back home to Boston. My mother spent 50 years as a Girl Scout leader and a community activist, particularly on the environment. And I recently reread a letter that she wrote my father during the war, a letter that my siblings and I still cherish. Speaking of the war, she wrote very simply: "There is something for everyone to do."

Well, International Women's Day reminds us that there is something that each of us can still do to build the progress and build on the progress that we have made and to protect the health, the education, the welfare, the human rights of women and girls all over this world. We can do more to pursue equality and tolerance, just like the teenager that I met in Berlin, to pursue full political representation just like the women I met from Burma, to inspire people all over the world just like each of the honorees that are here on this stage here today. There is still something for everyone to do, even if you're somewhere that doesn't welcome you in the doing of it. And that is why it is called courage.

So as the son of a woman who reminded me of that sort of never-ending responsibility, as the father of two daughters who deserve the same freedom and rights as everybody else's sons, and as the first male Secretary to present the International Women of Courage awards -- (laughter and applause) -- it is now my honor to introduce you to the nine extraordinary and inspiring women who refuse to be intimidated or silenced.

I would ask the First Lady to please join me, if she would, for these presentations. And I'll read -- and I'd ask each of the honorees to join the First Lady and stand beside her one at a time as I read the citation.

Our first honoree is Second Lieutenant Malalai Bahaduri of Afghanistan. (Applause.) When the Taliban fell in 2002, Malalai made a life-changing decision. She left her job as a telecommunications operator in order to undertake a career in law enforcement. And when her uncle found out, he broke her nose. Undeterred, she was eventually elected as the first female member of the Afghan National Interdiction Unit. And to this day, she endures death threats and daily discrimination, but she has never let that weaken her resolve. Not only has her persistence inspired other women to join the Narcotics Interdiction Unit, she is already halfway through a training program that will allow her to be promoted to an officer -- and the first woman officer in her elite unit. (Applause.)

So for courageous and dedicated service to drug law enforcement and training in Afghanistan as a First Sergeant* in the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan's National Interdiction Unit, we name Malalai Bahaduri a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Julieta Castellanos -- she has helped Honduras work to overcome corruption, drug trafficking, and one of the highest murder rates in the world. When her country was polarized in the wake of the 2009 coup d'etat, Julieta helped heal the wounds dividing the Honduran people, and she made recommendations to help prevent similar crises from ever happening again. She has organized others outside of government to become a powerful voice for justice, security, and human rights protections. And even when the Honduran National Police murdered her son two years ago, Julieta refused to turn inward or give up. Instead she channeled her grief into a powerful call for action that is delivering meaningful change for the Honduran people.

For pressing relentlessly to reform Honduran security and justice sector institutions, and forging a civil society coalition to advance that goal, we recognize Julieta Castellanos as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

During the past 20 years in Nigeria, Dr. Josephine Odumakin has handled more than 2,000 cases of government security agencies violating women's rights. These cases include everything from negligence to assault and killings. As the president of the Campaign for Democracy, she has personally led almost every protest, march, lecture, and workshop to encourage the rule of law and democracy in Nigeria. She has been arrested or detained 17 times, but she has never stopped crusading for the rights of the Nigerian people.

For exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in tirelessly advocating for human rights, social justice, and women's equality and advancement in Nigeria, Dr. Josephine Odumakin is a woman of courage. (Applause.)

When the Assad regime began committing atrocities against civilians in Syria nearly two years ago, Razan Zeituneh immediately began documenting these crimes on the internet and reporting them to international media. The government accused her of being a foreign agent, and she was forced into hiding, but she did not stop working. Today, even though she's been in hiding for 22 months, Razan is a leading voice in the Syrian revolution, working with the Local Coordinating Committees and the Syrian Human Rights Information Link to expose violations. Her website is the international community's main source of information about the killings and torture of civilians by security forces within Syria.

So for bringing light -- to light the murders and human rights abuses carried out by the Assad regime, for continuing to raise awareness of the crisis among the international community, and for supporting a free and democratic government for the greater good of the country, regardless of the threats to her own person, Razan Zeituneh is a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Elena Milashina is one of the most influential and respected journalists in Russia. She's built a career investigating drug trafficking, terrorism, military disasters, and the killings of fellow journalists, and topics that very few others have been willing to touch, for obvious reasons. In the face of threats from her government, corporations, and even private citizens, Elena has continued to expose the truth and to combat negative influences in Russian society. She bears the scars of physical and verbal assaults, but she also carries the confidence of the many whose lives she has made better through her commitment.

So for bold and courageous investigative reporting and for defending human rights in Russia and neighboring countries, we recognize Elena Milashina as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

As a former member of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Ta Phong Tan made a name for herself when she began posting articles online that were critical of the government and exposing corruption in the Vietnamese legal system. After she was expelled from the party, she started a blog called Truth and Justice, becoming one of the first bloggers in Vietnam to comment on political news and on events that the authorities considered off-limits. She helped inspire an awakening of citizen bloggers and journalists in Vietnam, who today are committed to spreading information and alternate opinions to the Vietnamese people. She was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly conducting propaganda against the state. Yet even as state security forces were dragging her away from a rigged verdict, she cried out to all who could hear, "Unjust! Unjust!"

For her dedication to continually demanding a better government for her people, for her willingness to take risks for her beliefs, and for her life experience and skills as a writer that serve as an inspiration to women in Vietnam, Ta Phong Tan is a 2013 woman of courage. (Applause.)

Tibet has become increasingly identified with self-immolations and protests against the deteriorating human rights condition for China's Tibetan citizens. Against this backdrop, Tsering Woeser has emerged as a clarion voice of the people, even as the Chinese Government has worked to curtail the flow of information from Tibet. Through her website, called Invisible Tibet, her poetry, her nonfiction works, her savvy use of communication networks like Twitter, Tsering has bravely documented the situation around her. And for her efforts, she is now subject to constant surveillance, followed by security agents, and at this moment is under house arrest. She says that "to bear witness is to give voice," and that is what she is doing for the millions of Tibetans who cannot speak for themselves. And she has vowed to never give up or compromise.

So for courageously striving to improve human rights conditions for China's Tibetan citizens by illuminating their plight through her writings, and thus giving eloquent voice to those whose stories might otherwise never be heard, Tsering Woeser is a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Obviously sadly, since neither of these women can be here, we know that that will not deter them from continuing their work and therefore it should not deter us from honoring their bravery and sharing their stories today, and we proudly do so.

Next, it is my honor to introduce Fartuun Adan of Somalia. (Applause.) Fartuun worked alongside her husband advocating for peace and education in Somalia for years before warlords assassinated her husband in 1996. Fartuun then fled to Canada and she raised their three daughters there as refugees. But in 2007, with Mogadishu torn apart by violence, Fartuun returned home to continue her work for justice and reconciliation in Somalia. She started with pressing problems that are far too often absolutely ignored in patriarchal societies -- rape and other sexual gender-based violence like child marriage.

Her program, called Sister Somalia, supports survivors of sexual violence in unprotected camps of internally displaced people. She established the first sexual violence hotline and rape crisis center in Mogadishu, and that has helped more than 400 Somali women get a safe new start on life. And she has reached out to help hundreds of former child soldiers in order for them to be able to reintegrate into society, offering them an education and job training. Many are now working as teachers, electricians, mechanics, and they're filling the good jobs that Somalia needs in order to recover from more than two decades of violence. One person, folks.

For courageously championing the rights of women and youth in Somalia through post-trauma support provision, skills training, education, and advocacy, and for never losing hope for a peaceful Somalia, we honor Fartuun Adan as a woman of courage. (Applause.)

Finally, we honor a woman known simply as Nirbhaya -- brave, big heart, fearless. This bright young woman was studying to be a doctor when she boarded a bus in Delhi last December.

For hours, she was brutally gang raped. She was then tossed away, along with her friend, left naked and bleeding alongside the road and left to die. But she kept fighting.

Over the next two weeks, she became aware of the growing movement that was supporting her and the outrage and indignation ignited around the world. As she fought for her life, she decided to fight for justice, too. She defied her doctors and the culture of silence, giving two detailed accounts of her attack that the police used to arrest her rapists.

Her bravery inspired millions of women and men to come together with a simple message: No more. No more looking the other way when gender-based violence happens. No more stigma against victims or survivors.

Nirbhaya's fight survives her. For inspiring people to work together to end violence against women in India and around the world by displaying immense courage in demanding justice, as this inscription reads, and with great sadness, we honor Nirbhaya as a woman of exceptional courage, and we honor her posthumously.

Please stand and join me, if you would, in a moment of silence for Nirbhaya.

Thank you very much. It is my honor to read part of a statement from Nirbhaya's mother and father. And this is what they wrote:

"We never imagined that the girl we thought was our daughter would one day be the daughter of the entire world. She was meant to be the daughter of the world. This is a huge achievement in itself.

"She was always different from other children. Other children cry when being sent to school, but she was an extraordinary child who would cry when she was not going to school. She was a happy girl, and even in times of struggle she would stay cheerful. We gave equal treatment to all our three children; there was no discrimination because of her being a girl. Our daughter was made of steel -- once she decided she had to do something, there was no looking back. She would work at call centers during nights, and study during day. She'd never get enough time to sleep, just about two hours at the most. And despite the odds, and our poverty, she always managed to achieve and move ahead. She had just one goal in life, to study and become a doctor.

"Today, our message to the world is: do not tolerate any attack on your dignity and honor; do not silently bear ill treatment. Earlier, women would keep silent and hide away when they were subjected to sexual misconduct. They would not report it to the police, nor lodge any complaints. They were scared of the stigma. That has changed -- the fear is now gone. And while her end was horrendous, her case is imparting strength to all women to fight and to improve the system. Women, both in India and in the rest of the world, refuse to be stigmatized and will not keep silent anymore. This incident has opened their minds and empowered them. They are no longer scared of what anyone will say."

I'd like to invite Fartuun Adan to speak on behalf of all those that we have honored here today. (Applause.)

MS. ADAN: Thank you very much. I have a speech, but I don't think I can read it. I'm not going to read it because I'm too nervous sitting beside with Michelle. (Laughter.) This is the one opportunity I was never expecting when we were working in Somalia. It's -- I never thought someone is going to see the work we are doing in Somalia. But that is -- that is the one of the things I really appreciating here.

First Lady -- sorry about that. (Laughter.) First Lady, I honestly don't know what to say, but thank you for having us here. And also I would like to talk about on behalf of these women, these really, really fabulous women, and the work we do doesn't matter where we live, it's always the same. As women, we share one word, which is silence. Whatever place we are, we are always quiet. We don't talk, we don't say anything. We just listen whatever someone tells us. And that is that we are now to change.

I'm a mother. I have three girls and I have to be a role model, not only to them but all young girls, and not only Somalia but all over the place. We need to speak out. We need to inform. We need to be part of the change, I mean politically, I mean decision making. We have in Somalia last 22 years women who's fighting, and we didn't have a government, a strong government. We are fighting. And all this women who is doing amazing job in Somalia, they never get encouraged when it comes to peace making, when it comes to the decision making, when it comes to the -- anything in their life, someone has to make a decision for them. And that is not right and that's where we stand today. And I am so happy. I am nervous -- sorry about, guys. (Laughter.) I am so happy to be here. And yesterday, when I saw the signing, President Obama signing against violence against the women, it was relief. I knew and I know we can change. We can change.

And our program called Sister Somali which that name it came from because it doesn't matter where we live, we are all sisters. And that's why need support to young generation to become leaders, to change, and not -- we have a lot of work to do -- education, health, and basic life. We're talking about human rights and basic life in Somalia, and we don't have that. And that's the one of thing we are fighting for, and we want to keep fighting and hopefully one day we will change and the young generation is going to get there. And thank you very much having me here. I am sorry I didn't read my speech because -- (applause).

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you, Fartuun, for your remarks on behalf of all of the women here and all of the women everywhere. Fartuun, I have to tell you I have been in Mogadishu and met with your President and talked about the role that women are playing in your country. And I have no doubt that with leaders like you, there will be a bright and great future for your children and for their children. I thank you and all of you for everything you do every single day. (Applause.)

I am sure, like all of you in the audience, I am truly humbled by these women. On behalf of Mrs. Obama, Secretary Kerry, and the International Women of Courage, thank you for joining us today. It is really all of our privilege to be here.