Women Honored by Clinton, Michelle Obama for Human Rights

Michelle  Obama and Hillary Clinton
Hawa Abdallah Mohammed Salih of Sudan embraces first lady Michelle Obama as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during the presentation ceremony of the International Women of Courage Awards at the State Department March 8, 2012 in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama honored 10 women from around the world today for courage and leadership in advocating for women’s rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk.

“They saw corruption, and they worked to expose it,” Obama said at an awards ceremony in Washington for the sixth annual Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award. “They saw oppression, and they worked to end it. They saw violence, poverty, discrimination, and inequality -- and they decided to use their voices, and risk their lives, to do something about it,”

Obama recounted stories of honorees from Myanmar, Pakistan, Colombia and Brazil who were imprisoned, silenced, tortured and kidnapped for speaking out for women’s rights, social justice, peace or democracy.

“Despite the risks they face, despite the hardships they endure, these women carry on -- because they know that they are fighting not just for their own rights and freedoms, but for the rights and freedoms of so many others,” she said.

On the anniversary of International Women’s Day, Clinton and Obama were joined by two of the three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, a journalist who led Yemeni women in the uprising there.

Afghan, Colombian

Among the honorees as described by Clinton and Obama:

-- Maryam Durani, who survived threats and attempts on her life to win a provincial council seat in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and run a nonprofit group that promotes women’s rights.

-- Zin Mar Aung, a pro-democracy activist, who was imprisoned for 11 years in Myanmar, formerly Burma, for writing a letter demanding that the elected civilian government be permitted to take power in her country. After her release, she started advocating for women and political prisoners.

-- Colombian investigative journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, who was kidnapped, raped and tortured following her coverage of a right-wing paramilitary group and arms trafficking. After the attack, she continued reporting and started campaigning against sexual violence, persevering after another abduction by leftist guerrillas three years later.

-- Shad Begum, a Pakistani human-rights activist, who ran for district council to improve health care and education. The male council members relegated her to a separate room, behind a locked door where her voice couldn’t be heard. Undeterred, she ran for higher office, saying, “Whatever it takes, I will make them hear me,” as Obama recounted.

Rio Police

-- Major Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo, one of the few women in Rio de Janeiro’s military police, who has risen to command more than 100 male officers. A gang-violence officer, she was kidnapped and later managed to arrest the gang that held her captive. The police major now promotes conflict mediation and community development to counter violence.

Clinton urged the audience to “ask ourselves what are we doing to further justice, dignity, women’s rights” and human rights.

The honorees are traveling to 10 U.S. cities to meet with American women, the State Department said.

In an interview today, Melanne Verveer, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, said women’s empowerment is key to economic development as well as political progress. Promoting small- and medium-sized businesses run by women “helps grow the economy,” she said.

‘Everybody Does Better’

“No country is going to get ahead if it leaves half of its population behind,” Verveer said. “When women and girls do better, everybody does better. The most effective investment that can be made is to educate a girl” because when she grows up she leads by example, elevating the nutrition, health, literacy and economic prospects of her whole family, Verveer said.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent. A U.S. Agency for International Development study found that women spend more of their earned income on food, health care, home improvement and schooling, creating a multiplier effect in local communities.

Educating girls and women “is the single best investment that can be made,” Verveer said.

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