Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the 17th Annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards Ceremony
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon, everyone. Please take a seat. And it is a special honor for me to be able to say, welcome to the White House. (Applause.) And welcome especially to the 2023 International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony to all of you participating here in person and tuning in from around the world.
For 17 years now, U.S. secretaries of state have recognized International Women of Courage who are leading the charge for progress around the world. This year, for the first time, we honor the awardees here at the White House – and that really is a reflection of just how highly President Biden, the First Lady, and this administration prioritize gender equality and human rights.
Dr. Biden, thank you for bringing us here today. But thank you more than that for everything that you’re doing every single day to be such a remarkable role model to so many women around the world, and for your incredibly tireless efforts to lift up the voices of brave women everywhere around the world.
MRS BIDEN: Thank you. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So we’re joined today by ambassadors from across the globe, who are essential partners in all of our efforts to make sure that women and girls can reach their full potential.
We have senior leaders from across the United States Government here: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, our champion, our voice, at the United Nations. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kath Hicks. Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, our advocate for human rights. Jen Klein, Kat Fotovat, who are leaders of our global gender policy. And of course White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, also such a powerful voice for our country and for this administration around the world. And I also want to point out our team from the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs. We’re working with so many of you every single day in the work that you’re doing.
We’re also joined by members of the State Department’s Locally Employed Staff. They’re literally the lifeblood of our missions in every country in the world. To be here today, some of them have traveled from more than a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and the Middle East. It’s wonderful to be with you today as well. Thank you. (Applause.)
And in the audience we have several previous winners of the International Women of Courage Award, who are continuing their inspiring work. And the First Lady and I had an opportunity to greet them, to be able to say in person what we were not able to do the last couple of years, which is: Congratulations and thank you for the incredible work that you’re doing. (Applause.)
And, of course, last but not least, our guests of honor, this year’s International Women of Courage. Welcome to all of you. (Applause.)
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched this initiative in 2007, she did so to honor women creating brighter futures – for themselves, for their communities, and for generations to come.
Since then, this award has recognized more than 180 women from over 80 countries around the world.
And that includes this year’s honorees: 11 truly extraordinary people.
As you’ll hear, these women are reporting on Russian atrocities in Ukraine. They’re fighting for equal opportunities for women and girls in Mongolia. They’re defending democracy in the Central African Republic. They’re protecting indigenous land in Costa Rica. They’re advocating for the rights of refugees, people with disabilities, the LGBTQI+ community.
Because of their work, and even as they do it every single day, they are faced with extraordinary challenges that, as you learn about them, read about them, are humbling. They, their loved ones in many cases, have endured harassment. They’ve endured violence. Some have been imprisoned. Others have been subject of misinformation and online attacks day in, day out. And yet each and every one has refused to be intimidated.
In every region, there are other women doing this work who we can’t name individually – in some cases because the attention would put them at even greater risk. So we’ve found a new way to honor them.
This year, we’re launching a group award, named after a pioneer and champion of equality, the great Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. We have – (applause) – we have several members of the Albright family here today to help us celebrate. I like to think I’m an extended member of that family. (Laughter.) For me, as I’ve told our friends, I hear Madeleine Albright’s voice in my head on a regular basis; the clarity with which she spoke and what she said continues to resonate and continues to inspire me in the work that I and my team are doing. But you honor us with your presence today. Thank you for being here.
Around the world, women – in all of their diversity – are often the ones on the front lines of change. And yet, at the same time, they face still greater obstacles to their political participation; they experience gender-based violence and human rights abuses; they hold less economic and social power. We are committed to changing that.
Defending the rights of women and girls is rooted in our democratic values of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. And when we advance equality and defend the rights of women, we improve life for everyone. When peace is forged with the participation and the leadership of women, it’s more likely to last. We know this from experience. Closing the gender gap in the global workforce would add $28 trillion to the global economy. And as Secretary Albright once said, we simply cannot build the future that we want without the contribution of women.
That’s why President Biden has made gender equality and women’s rights a priority of our foreign policy. Some of you know we recently launched the first-ever, cross-government Strategy on Women’s Global Economic Security, to try to help reduce the enduring wage gap, to improve access to well-paying jobs, to dismantle barriers to women’s economic participation. In December, the United States also updated our strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally, including new efforts to expand access to programs for historically marginalized communities.
We’re also learning from – and teaming up with – governments, civil society, the private sector in other countries to work toward gender equality together, including, of course, the women that we’re honoring today. One of those women – Hadeel Abdel Aziz – noted that, when it comes to advancing this struggle, success is “not about one big act” – “not about one big act of heroism, but … one hundred small battles.”
To our honorees, the United States is proud to be by your side, as you and others wage those hundred small battles, day in, day out. And we will be there and be there with you for the long haul.
That includes, of course, the First Lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden. The First Lady. (Applause.)
(The First Lady delivered remarks.)
MODERATOR: Please welcome Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the U.S. Department of State Uzra Zeya. (Applause.)
UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: It takes courage to seek justice when the powerful stand against you.
Laws can protect the innocent or persecute the oppressed. And when the rule of law becomes a tool of tyranny, or when the structures in place simply fail to live up to the promise of equality, fairness, and humanity, we appeal to a higher ideal: justice.
The women we honor today have worked tirelessly to ensure that their nations’ legal systems protect all people, no matter their gender, beliefs, or background. And when those systems cannot – or will not – protect every citizen, they have fought to transform them. They have broken barriers, risen to new heights, and inspired other young women to follow their lead.
Because without women’s rights, perspectives, and participation, there can be no justice. But when we all have the opportunity to shape our laws, we create systems that truly serve us all.
(A video was played.)
And now, Dr. Biden and Secretary Blinken will present the awards. (Applause.)
As the first woman to lead the Central African Republic’s Constitutional Court, Danièle Darlan became known as the “woman of iron” for her refusal to be intimidated. She’s spent her career working to ensure the law delivers justice to all, no matter their background. And in the face of enormous pressure to allow the president to rewrite the constitution to give himself an illegal third term, she refused, sacrificing her career to safeguard the rule of law. (Applause.)
As founder and executive director of Jordan’s Justice Center for Legal Aid, Hadeel Abdel Aziz provides legal services to thousands of people every year who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a lawyer. She works to educate people about their rights so that they know how to protect themselves and are empowered to do so. (Applause.)
During political unrest in Kazakhstan, which resulted in deaths and credible reports of torture, longtime civil rights advocate Bakhytzhan Toregozhina used phone calls to expose human rights violations during an internet blackout. She then founded a coalition to document violations and provide legal and mental health support to victims of torture and abuse. (Applause.)
Please join me once more in congratulating these incredible women. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Please welcome Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. (Applause.)
DEPUTY SECRETARY HICKS: It takes courage to seek peace when you are the target of violence.
When wars are waged, when authoritarians seek to consolidate power, when conflict uproots and displaces families, women and girls shoulder many of the costs and consequences.
Those who wish to harm and turn their violence on women and girls often do so because women and girls serve as a society’s source of strength and a beacon of hope.
It’s because when women use their voices to speak out against authoritarianism, their leadership can create lasting democratic change.
When women use their voices to stand up for what’s right against overwhelming odds, their voices can reverberate around the world.
And when women have a seat at the table, they hold the power to lead their communities toward peace and prosperity.
And that’s the truth.
Studies show that when women participate in peace negotiations, these talks are more likely to come to a just settlement and result in lasting stability.
Peace is possible when we support the women working to make it a reality – by stopping conflicts before they begin, by addressing the root causes of discrimination and violence, and by working to end wars that have already begun and mitigating their harm.
So today, we salute several women leaders who are exhibiting extraordinary courage to seek peace when they themselves are the targets of violence; women who are using their strength to pursue gender equity and equality in the face of extreme cruelty and hate; women who are fighting for dignity and freedom for not just themselves but for others.
In our awardees, we see that our capacity for understanding and healing is stronger than the forces that try to tear us apart – and we are reminded that women belong everywhere the decisions are made.
(A video was played.)
On behalf of Dr. Biden and Secretary Blinken, I’m honored to present awards to the following women.
In Mongolia, Brigadier General Bolor Ganbold is the first female staff officer in her country to be assigned to a United Nations peacekeeping operation – (applause) – and the first female general to serve in the Mongolian armed forces. Brigadier Ganbold has served in peacekeeping missions around the world, and she has advocated for gender equality in peacekeeping forces and her country’s military, so that women and girls can be properly protected during and after conflicts. (Applause.)
In Costa Rica, Doris Ríos has dedicated her life to fighting for indigenous women’s rights to life and dignity and for the reclamation of indigenous lands. (Applause.) In the face of threats of violence and attacks against her and her family, she has created a seat at the table for indigenous women to make the world more peaceful and just. (Applause.)
In Argentina, Alba Rueda is a transgender woman who was kicked out of classrooms, barred for sitting for exams, refused job opportunities, subjected to violence, and rejected by her family. But in the face of these challenges, she worked to end violence and discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community in Argentina. (Applause.)
After women were barred from schools in Afghanistan, Zakira Hekmat secretly finished high school and won a scholarship to study in Türkiye, eventually becoming a doctor. After seeing the difficulty refugees faced, she founded the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association to advocate for the rights of all refugees and women. (Applause.)
It is my privilege and honor – to honor each of you for your important contributions to human rights and for making the world a more peaceful place.
Congratulations, and thank you for your courage. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Please welcome White House Press Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. (Applause.)
MS JEAN-PIERRE: It takes courage to speak when those in power want to stay – want you to stay silent.
In a world where lies and distortion are easy to sell, one of the most powerful weapons that we have is the truth.
Because corruption thrives in darkness, dictators and authoritarians seek to control criticism and define the stories that we tell. They threaten journalists and those who speak out, so they can control knowledge and hide their crimes – selling their people false stories of peace and success.
But when we illuminate the shadows, we can expose the damage they create – lighting a path forward for those trapped in the dark with the knowledge and the strength to rise and demand change.
This group of journalists, broadcasters, and war correspondents spread truth, courage, and empower other women and girls to use their voices for democracy, freedom, and justice.
(A video was played.)
And once again, Dr. Biden and Secretary Blinken will present the awards.
Through her independent YouTube news channel, Roha TV, veteran Ethiopian journalist Meaza Mohammed shares stories of those who are often silenced. Despite three arrests in under one year, she continued to raise her voice, advocating for survivors of gender-based violence and urging accountability for crimes committed against them. (Applause.)
While helping evacuate women and children from areas affected by war, Ukrainian military veteran Yuliia Paievska secretly documented Russian forces-committed atrocities during the 2022 siege of Mariupol. (Applause.) She smuggled a memory card to the Associated Press in a tampon, and was forced to destroy another with her teeth before being captured by Russian forces and tortured for information. (Applause.) Since her release, she has continued to raise her voice for her people, pushing for peace and independence for Ukraine. (Applause.)
As a broadcaster journalist, Ras Adiba Radzi became a household name. After a car accident and brutal assault permanently paralyzed her from the waist down, she used her platform to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities – (applause) – first as a reporter, and now as a senator in Malaysia’s parliament and the first female chair of the national Malaysian news agency, Bernama. (Applause.)
While Polish journalist Bianka Zalewska was combating Russian misinformation in 2014, her car was shot, causing accident that broke her spine. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, and in the face of intimidation and death threats, she continues her work documenting war crimes, lifting up stories of refugees, and training other journalists to effectively counter misinformation. (Applause.)
Please join me in a round of applause for all of our awardees. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Please welcome U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Hello, everyone. It really is a privilege to present this new award – one that honors our first female Secretary of State, the late Madeleine Albright.
Secretary Albright showed so many women, including myself, how to lead with moral clarity and with courage.
Her legacy lives on in those still fighting for gender equality and universal human rights.
It is fitting that this award recognizes not just one woman, but the bravery, the fortitude, and collaboration of a whole movement.
It speaks to the outsized impact of Secretary Albright’s example and life of service.
When the Albright family – who is here with us today – learned about this award, they asked that another trailblazing leader – one who knew Secretary Albright well – be part of this ceremony: Secretary Condoleezza Rice.
Secretary Rice created the International Women of Courage award in 2007, and though she couldn’t join us today, she wanted to take part in this very special ceremony.
(A video was played.)
And I wish they could be here to hear your applause.
I’m proud to present the Madeleine K. Albright Honorary Group International Women of Courage Award.
This inaugural award goes to women and girls in Iran, who – in the wake of the brutal killing of Mahsa Amini – have inspired us all.
All Mahsa wanted was to live a normal and happy life. She dreamed of starting a family after finishing her studies.
But these hopes and dreams were crushed. They were crushed by the tyranny of Iran’s so-called “morality police.”
The Iranian Government probably thought this would just be another footnote in a long record of violence and discrimination against women.
But this time – this time it was different.
The Iranian people – led by women – took to the streets in peaceful protest.
They followed in the footsteps of brave women before them, who sacrificed so much in the name of freedom. Through neighborhoods and classrooms, out of apartment buildings and car windows, the protesters chanted throughout Iran and around the world, creating a global chorus demanding gender equality and human rights.
But for all the hope this movement represents, we must never forget how the Iranian regime has responded.
They have tortured peaceful protesters. They have arrested tens of thousands of people. They have badly injured and killed Iranians in bloody crackdowns.
The international community must continue to condemn the regime’s repression and violence.
And we must back up our words with action.
That’s why the United States led a successful effort to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
And it’s why we are working to hold those complicit in these abuses accountable.
To all the women and girls across Iran – know this: We will continue to stand with you in your fight for women, for life, and for freedom.
So everyone, please join me in recognizing the courageous women and girls in Iran. (Applause.)
I now have the honor of introducing another courageous woman who has been an unwavering champion for vulnerable populations in Malaysia.
When a car accident and a brutal assault paralyzed Senator Ras Adiba Radzi from the waist down, she dedicated her life to advocacy.
To raise awareness, Malaysians across the country saw her on TV, in parliament, and at the Paralympics. They heard her commentary. They heard her poetry. They heard her fierce call for justice.
In May 2020, she became Malaysia’s representative for people with disabilities – and later that year, she was appointed the first female chair of the Malaysian National News Agency.
Senator Ras Adiba Radzi embodies – she embodies what it means to live a life in service to others. Please join me in welcoming her to the podium. (Applause.)
MS RADZI: Assalamu alaikum, or peace be upon you.
I’m Senator Ras Adiba Radzi, a representative of the 2023 International Women of Courage Award. Before I begin, I would like to thank the First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, the Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, and the U.S. Department of State for giving me the opportunity to speak today.
I’d have to say that I’m thoroughly impressed by the amazing work done by my fellow finalists in their respective countries. Let’s give them a big hand. (Applause.) Among others, I am joined by women who are fighting against gender-based violence, for the rights of indigenous persons, and for the rule of law.
Honorable guests, I was born able-bodied and became permanently paralyzed from the waist down after several incidents. I became a spinal-cord-injured person following a car accident in 1995, a brutal assault a year later, and finally in 2002 when I fell after climbing a ladder.
Since then, I have committed my life to fighting for the rights of persons with disabilities in my country, Malaysia. I witnessed discrimination and stigma as persons with disabilities and then on my team and I fought and fought and fought. Ladies and gentlemen, I have been working tirelessly to create awareness on the importance of accessibility in infrastructure, disability inclusion, job opportunities, inclusive education, housing, and upholding our rights, among others.
I and my team then founded an association to empower persons with disabilities called OKU Sentral. In May 2020, the Malaysian king, His Majesty the King Al-Sultan Abdullah, appointed me as a senator in the upper house parliament of Malaysia to represent persons with disabilities. In November 2020, I was appointed the first female chair of the Malaysian National News Agency, BERNAMA, after 53 years of its establishment.
Distinguished guests, in the area of sustainable development, all of us here aim to create a world which is inclusive, equitable, and sustainable, a world in which no one is left behind and opportunities be made available for all, for a secure, stable, and successful nation. Without the role and contribution of women, a nation will not be able to progress as it is today. It is vital for all parties to respect the contribution of women in all areas: economy, social, politics and culture. Women’s involvement is crucial, as they are an important asset to a country.
So let’s, again, give a big round of applause – and actually I feel like hugging them all – (laughter) – especially to the women here and to women across the world who have excelled in their roles and contributed towards a prosperous nation worldwide. We are at a pivotal moment for women’s rights. For us, receiving this International Women of Courage Award is very, very much significant for our people in each of our countries. This will be an integral part of spreading awareness and will celebrate the activism and transformative power of women and girls.
Honorable guests, this opportunity is indeed an honor for me to share my views and experience, especially concerning the protection and social participation of persons with disabilities in Malaysia with everyone here today. Despite the increasing awareness around persons with disabilities, there is no denial that there’s discrimination in this polarized world, exists to the detriment of our disabled friends. It exists because of a prevailing mindset, a stereotypical way of looking at the disabled. What the community needs to understand and to accept is that persons with disabilities are entitled to the full range of civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, as stated in various human rights instruments, the same as everyone else.
On that note, and as we speak, the Malaysian Government is in the midst of amending the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 to have an Anti-Discrimination Act for Persons with Disabilities like the United Kingdom’s and the Americans with Disability Act 1990 or ADA.
Esteemed guests, raising awareness of basic human rights and the right to be free of discrimination among women, children, and persons with disabilities is the fundamental aspect in which we must continue to work on. Without such awareness, it is extremely difficult to bring about justice and change. The increasing number of hate crimes, racist remarks, and instances of ableist behavior shows that we must act quickly to protect the most vulnerable communities.
Hence, I would like to take this opportunity to call on the 195 governments of the day in the world to ensure that the marginalized and vulnerable groups – women, children, including persons with disabilities – are not left out and rise to the clarion call of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda: leave no one behind.
Before I end my speech, I’d like to acknowledge the late Judith Heumann, a leader in the disability community, advocating for persons with disabilities and has been the mother of the disability rights movement since the ’70s. We will miss her terribly. But myself and the rest of us, I promise you, will continue to be her voice. As she puts it, we are leaders of inclusiveness and community, of love, equity, and justice.
Honorable guests, me standing here today – in my standing wheelchair – means a whole lot, especially for my countrymen, Malaysia. So I’d like to say in Malay sejuta doa mencapai bintang, which means a million prayers has now reached the skies.
Terima kasih or thank you for this honor, and from the bottom of my heart, assalamu alaikum. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Please welcome Acting Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State Kat Fotovat. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR FOTOVAT: What an honor it is to close out such a historic day, such a historic event. Happy International Women’s Day to all those around the world and to our amazing Women of Courage we honor today. What an incredible ceremony.
I must say, I am rendered nearly speechless by the senator’s remarks. Your resilience, determination, and grit in the fact of extreme adversity and your resolve to continue to fight for women’s rights as human rights, to achieve a better future for us, is both humbling and energizing.
I couldn’t also help but think of my dear friend and personal hero Judy Heumann, whose funeral I attended just this morning. Judy was a leader of the international disability rights movement who said, “I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.” Through your work, senator, and the work of all of our awardees, Judy’s legacy of defending the rights and communities facing discrimination will live on. You and all of our International Women of Courage awardees are truly inspirational for your courage and, as Judy noted, to make a fuss about it.
I’m so honored to be here at the White House today to join First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Secretary Blinken, and the other distinguished speakers who joined us to pay tribute to the recipients of the Secretary of State 2023 International Women of Courage Awards. The IWOC Award is truly a centerpiece and guiding force behind my office’s work to lead the Department of State’s efforts to promote the rights and empowerment of women and girls worldwide, and it is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy and assistance.
Today, our awardees join a truly incredible group of more than 180 women from more than 80 countries who have received the International Women of Courage Award since 2007 in recognition of the exceptional courage, strength, and leadership all of you have shown, advocating for peace, justice, human rights, and gender equity and equality, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. I hope this award will elevate your advocacy work and bring greater international attention to the issues that you are fighting for.
Every day, as my colleagues and I carry out our mission, working with our partners to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, advance women’s economic security, and promote the women, peace, and security agenda across the globe, we draw inspiration from fearless women’s rights champions like the courageous women who are – we are gathered here to honor today, and also from their advocates, defenders, their family members, government allies, civil society leaders, and journalists who are also in this room today championing gender equity and equality, not just in words but in action.
Today, on International Women’s Day, the U.S. Government reaffirms our commitment to the safety and full participation of women and girls in decision-making at all levels and as foundational to peace, stability, and economic growth of all nations.
I’d also like to quote Secretary Albright, who said, “It took me a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” (Laughter and applause.)
To our 2023 Courage Awards, thank you again for using your voices and being the voice for those who can’t use theirs. Let us all commit to using our voices to amplify those facing oppression, crisis, and in conflict in places like Iran, Ukraine, and Afghanistan, and all over the world.
Congratulations to our awardees, and thank you for all you have done to give women and girls everywhere a fighting chance. We stand with you and for you. And thank you, everyone here today, joining us to celebrate these truly amazing and courageous women. Happy International Women’s Day. Thank you. (Applause.)