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Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards Ceremony
March 8, 2021


MS FOTOVAT:  Good morning.  My name is Kat Fotovat, and I am the senior official for the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues here at the State Department.  It is my pleasure to welcome both our in-person and virtual audience to the 15th Annual Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards.

We are delighted to join you today on International Women’s Day.  Since 2007, the U.S. has marked this day by recognizing women who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership, advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families.

Our office is responsible for ensuring that gender equality and women’s empowerment are integrated throughout the work of the State Department, both here in Washington and at our embassies and consulates overseas.  We aim to ensure that women’s issues are at the forefront of our foreign policy in every corner of the world by raising gender equality and conversations with other governments, and listening to, learning from, and working with civil society activists to promote more fair and just societies.

The International Women of Courage Award is a critical component of our work, and an event we look forward to every year.  The award selection process is extremely competitive, and our awardees should be very proud of this recognition.  Each year this ceremony draws greater interest and enthusiasm, and we want to build on this momentum moving forward, in collaboration with all of you watching the ceremony today within the United States and all over the world.

This event is also an opportunity for the United States to reaffirm its commitment to the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment, and to recognize the unique contributions of women, and especially today’s honorees.

To this year’s awardees, thank you so much for the work that you do to speak up for the voiceless, to protect the vulnerable, and to push governments to do a better job for their citizens.  We recognize the risks that you are taking and celebrate your courage to persist.  We hope that this recognition will help further advance your causes in your respective countries, and on the international stage.  We are so inspired by all of your stories, and while we recognize the challenges to the advancement of women’s empowerment continue to persist, we also celebrate the enormous progress that has been made over the last few decades due to the efforts of women like our awardees.

Now it is my great and distinct honor to welcome to the stage the First Lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden, and the Secretary of State of the United States, Antony Blinken.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good morning.  Good morning, everyone, and welcome to today’s celebration.

We have a few special guests today, because this is an event that always brings people together.

And our most special guest is our wonderful First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden – a dear friend, a fierce champion for women and girls here at home and around the world.  Welcome.  (Applause.)

I’m also particularly pleased to welcome our new Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is already doing an outstanding job representing America’s interests and values to the world.  (Applause.)

And another good friend of many years, Ambassador Cathy Russell, now helping shape our workforce as director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, but who did amazing work here at the State Department as the head of the Office for Global Women’s Issues under President Obama.  Cathy, great to have you.  (Applause.)

Kat Fotovat, who is carrying forward that critical work today.  We deeply appreciate it.

Acting Assistant Secretary Matt Lussenhop from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which played a major role in making this award ceremony possible.

And from the First Lady’s office, Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, now the First Lady’s chief of staff, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mala Adiga, now the First Lady’s policy director.  (Applause.)

It is – it’s particularly wonderful to see State Department alumni serving in Dr. Biden’s office, and it’s another reminder of how our work at home and around the world is entwined.

Of course, our most important guests today are our honorees, the 2021 Women of Courage.  We wish they could join us in person today.  But even via video, it’s still a pleasure and an honor to celebrate these extraordinary women.

For 15 years, the State Department has given the International Women of Courage award to women around the world who have shown exceptional strength and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, and gender equality – often at great risk to themselves.

The women we honor today have endured violence, death threats, imprisonment, and police harassment because of their work.  Some have fled their homes.  Some have fled their countries.  They deserve our support and recognition.  And they remind us of something we must never forget – that it is often women who lead the charge for human rights, democracy, and justice, including in places where women hold much less than half of the political, economic, and social power.  And it’s often women and girls who are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses.

That’s why the equal rights and dignity of women and girls is a foreign policy priority for the United States.  When we design our foreign policy with the rights and needs of women and girls in mind, our policy is more effective, more humane, and more likely to make a lasting difference in people’s lives.  And when we support women, we can help foster change on a much broader scale.  Because it’s often women doing the hard work to make that change happen.

That’s certainly the case with today’s honorees.

And so without further ado, here are this year’s Women of Courage.

First, Maria Kalesnikava is a democracy activist in Belarus.  Ahead of last year’s presidential election, she mobilized women across the country to protest the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator.  She is absent from the screen today, because she is sitting in a Belarussian prison.  The United States will continue to call for her unconditional release, and for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus.

Maximilienne Ngo Mbe is a human rights activist in Cameroon.  She’s worked to bring an end to years of violence between the government and separatists and to hold security forces to account for abuses against civilians.

Wang Yu is one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in China.  She has represented cases involving abused children, ethnic minorities, women, and religious adherents, and her work has brought government pressure on her through today.  We have not been in regular communication over the past two days.  We’re concerned because we know that she wanted to attend today’s ceremony.  We’ll be following up and, if necessary, speaking out on her case.

Mayerlis Angarita has been instrumental in the implementation of the peace accord in Colombia.  Her relentless engagement has brought government and civil society groups together to stop violence and narco-trafficking.

Julienne Lusenge has led the fight against sexual and gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for more than 40 years, founding the country’s leading NGO and helping achieve international agreements against sexual violence in war.

Erika Aifan is a trial judge in Guatemala’s High Risk Criminal Court.  She regularly faces threats and harassment as she presides over high-profile corruption and war atrocity cases.

Shohreh Bayat is a referee of international chess tournaments and she was photographed at a competition in China last year without her hijab visible.  There was an outcry in her home country of Iran.  She sought refuge in the United Kingdom.  And now she is a leading voice for women’s rights in Iran.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung led the movement in Burma to preserve the independence of universities and protect the teaching of ethnic minority languages.  Her NGO builds ties among young people across ethnic and religious groups.

Muskan Khatun is a 16-year-old from Nepal who survived an acid attack after rejecting a boy’s advances.  Thanks to her courageous activism, there are now stronger penalties for acid attacks and regulations on the sale of acids in Nepal.

Zahra Mohamed Ahmed is a lawyer in Somalia who fights for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, internally displaced people, and refugees returning home – some of the most vulnerable people in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Ranitha Gnanarajah is a lawyer who defends minority Muslim and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka, fights for justice for victims of enforced disappearances and prisoners detained for years without charge.

Sister Alicia Vacas Moro is member of the missionary group the Comboni Sisters.  She ran a medical clinic in Egypt, served a Bedouin community outside Jerusalem, and now coordinates 40 nuns across the Middle East helping trafficking victims, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Canan Gullu is a woman’s rights activist and president of the Turkish Federation of Women’s Associations.  Last year, she successfully organized against Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty against domestic violence.

Ana Rosario Contreras is the president of the Caracas Nurses’ Association in Venezuela.  A prominent labor activist, she organizes nationwide protests and strikes for healthcare workers.

We are also posthumously honoring a group of courageous women from Afghanistan who paid the ultimate sacrifice while working toward a better future for their country.

Fatema Khalil, an official with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, was killed by an IED on her way to her office.

Maryam Noorzad was a midwife in a hospital in Kabul.  When three gunmen attacked the maternity ward, she refused to leave her patient, and was killed along with the patient and newborn.

Freshta, daughter of Amir Mohamed, was a prison guard murdered by an unknown gunman while walking to a taxi on her way to work.

Fatima Rajabi was an anti-narcotics police officer captured and killed by the Taliban.

Malalai Maiwand was a reporter murdered by unknown gunmen in Jalalabad – part of a troubling increase in violence against journalists in Afghanistan.

General Sharmila Frough, the head of the gender unit in the National Directorate of Security.  She was assassinated in an IED explosion targeting her vehicle.

And Freshta Kohistani was a popular blogger and women’s rights and democracy activist killed by unknown gunmen near her home in Kapisa Province.

They represent women and girls across Afghanistan who continue to press on in defense of their hard-won gains, and in the face of high rates of violence against Afghan women.

Finally, I want to mention a woman we honored in 2012, Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia, who fought a long battle for legal freedom from her father and became a prominent advocate for women’s voting rights.  She has been imprisoned since 2018, along with other women’s rights activists, and we join other nations in calling for their release.

My deepest thanks to all of this year’s International Women of Courage.  You are making our world more just, stable, peaceful, and free.  The United States is proud to be in your corner.  There is no better way to mark International Women’s Day than by celebrating you.

And now, it is my pleasure to introduce our First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden.  (Applause.)

(The First Lady gives remarks.)

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL:  Thank you.  Thank you, everyone.  It’s great to be back.  Dr. Biden, it’s hard to follow you.  I’ve been following you my whole career, so it’s only appropriate that I do it today as well.  Secretary Blinken, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, always wonderful to be with you.  And my former colleagues here at the State Department, it’s really wonderful to be back here.  I love being at the State Department and I’m really delighted to see you all today.

I’ve always loved this event, and so did the colleagues across the building.  Every seat was always filled, and even the gruffest Foreign Service officers came away moved by the stories that they heard here.  We all felt so grateful to be in the presence of such amazing women.  This is an event and an award well-named because the women we’re honoring today and the women who have been honored these past 15 years have shown courage in all its forms.  They’re young and old, they’re lawyers, nurses, human rights advocates, and even nuns.  They’re warriors for justice and advocates for accountability, and every day they make – they’ve worked so hard to make the lives of those around them fairer, safer, and more just.

In the last year, we here in the United States have seen many faces of courage in our own country: nurses, doctors, and countless frontline workers.  We’ve learned first-hand that courage isn’t acting without fear but acting despite it.  Each of our awardees today has summoned courage, many in situations hard for us here to imagine.  Several of them have lost their lives in those efforts.  It’s only right that we honor them here today, but it’s not enough.  All of us have to carry on the struggle for women’s rights here and around the world.  The awardees here today remind us how much that struggle means.

And it’s now my great pleasure to introduce video messages from the chiefs of mission representing the embassies that nominated this year’s awardees.

(Video messages are played.)

AMBASSADOR CURRIE:  You are all truly inspiring, and it is a privilege to be with you today to celebrate your leadership, your bravery, and your dedication.  Each of you has done so much to improve the lives of your communities, your countries, and the world around you.  Every year, I am in awe of the amazing women who are nominated and selected for this award.  As we mark the 15th anniversary, I’m so honored to be part of the IWOC sisterhood.  From a small seed of an idea in 2007 to the globe-spanning network of nearly 200 women who have received this honor to date, these awards have been transformative for everyone involved.  Our shared commitment to using platforms such as IWOC to promote women’s empowerment represents the best aspirations and highest ideals of American leadership in foreign policy.  Congratulations to the Office of Global Women’s Issues and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for continuing to take this program to new heights year after year, and again, congratulations to all of the amazing recipients this year and in years past.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER:  I’m delighted to be able to bring greetings on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the International Women of Courage Awards, and I want to reach out and extend my congratulations to this year’s awardees, all 15 of you, on this very special occasion.  I have been privileged as ambassador for women in the four years that I was at the State Department to be able to participate in the awards ceremony, and most especially to get to know the awardees individually – women like you who are on the front lines of change all over the world, doing absolutely remarkable things, often at great risk to them and to their families; so many women, so many like you, who are doing that hard work around the world.  And we all benefit greatly from what you do, because you are working each and every day in your communities, in your countries, and for our world to make it a better place.  So I congratulate each and every one of you and I want to say happy anniversary to the International Women of Courage Award.

MODERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.  (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Good morning.  I’m so inspired by what I just heard, the descriptions of all of these wonderful women.  I’m almost speechless.  I don’t know that there’s anything more to say other than thank you.  Please, thank you, Secretary Blinken, for inviting me today and honoring all of us here to come to the State Department and hosting this extraordinary event.  And I’m especially thankful to Dr. Biden for joining us here and honoring us with your presence.

I’m in awe of the heroines we are celebrating today.  Seeing your bravery, hearing about your strength, it’s beyond inspiring.  You have organized mass protests and protected vital human rights, and you stood up to autocrats and authoritarians who, I might add, seem to be mostly men.  Sorry, Tony.

Perhaps most important of all, you have shared your stories with the world, often at great personal risk to your lives.  That is a tremendous service because your courage is contagious.  I have no doubt that each of you has inspired other women to organize, demand equity, break down barriers to a stronger, more secure, and more peaceful world.  I know this is true because women like you, on the front lines of humanitarian work, peace-building, and equal rights advocacy across the globe, have inspired me throughout my career.

You are why I made peace and security a focal point of our work at the United Nations this week.  On my very first day as ambassador, I met with women working on the ground in Yemen to address one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.  The WHO estimates that 2 million children under the age of five are at risk of starvation and acute malnutrition as a result of years of conflict.  Women are on the front lines of this urgent humanitarian crisis and so many conflicts around the world, and that’s why during my presidency of the UN Security Council this month, I’m bringing the voices of women experts into our council meetings wherever possible to ensure that women’s voices are valued and are heard at the United Nations.

After all, women make the world more peaceful.  That is not just anecdotal, it’s a fact.  I lived and worked in Liberia for four years and I saw the amazing work that women were able to do there to bring peace.  And by promoting women’s participation and leadership in politics, in mediation, and in negotiations, we promote more security and more peace.

Yet, women continue to face enormous barriers to representation and leadership, particularly the threat of violence.  The seven Afghan women we honor today are a devastating testament to the violence perpetrated against women across the globe simply for speaking up and contributing to a stronger, safer world.

The violence is meant to silence, and we cannot allow that to happen.  We must address it head on.  We must ensure that their voices continue to be heard.  And that’s why it’s so important that today and every day we continue to spotlight their work.  We must continue to show the world how much it means when you insist on your presence or persist for equity and for justice.

In closing, I want to thank you for your bravery.  I want to thank you for your resolve.  I want to thank you for your resistance and your resilience, and for all that each of you are doing each and every day to make the world more equal and more peaceful and a place that we can leave to our children.

Congratulations to all of you and thank you for your service.  (Applause.)

MODERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs Matthew Lussenhop.  (Applause.)

MR LUSSENHOP:  Thank you.  Greetings and happy International Women’s Day.  Thanks for joining us from across the world.  My name’s Matt Lussenhop and I’m the acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, known as ECA.  To First Lady Dr. Biden, Secretary Blinken, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Ambassador Russell, and the Office of Global Women’s Issues, thanks for your leadership and your support of these incredible International Women of Courage.

For 15 years, our tradition is that each year’s group of International Women of Courage not only receive this prestigious award from the Secretary and the First Lady, they also participate in an ECA exchange called the International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP for short.  In a typical year, the IVLP brings over 5,000 current and emerging leaders to the United States, joining a group of over 225,000 alumni since the program began more than 80 years ago.  And the IVLP is as important today as ever to connect American and foreign participants, and we’re proud to have pivoted to a virtual model during this pandemic.

The International Women of Courage will soon join their IVLP virtual programs meeting with American counterparts to share knowledge on global health, civic engagement, and the protection of human rights.  This program is not only beneficial to our international visitors, but it also enriches our local American communities who host them and helps build global networks of activists and organizers.

So to the awardees, as you prepare for your virtual exchange, please know the American people share your vision of positive change, and we support your continued efforts.  Please, stay in contact with the Americans from your programs that you meet, and I’m looking forward to hearing about the impact that you will have on U.S. communities that you meet.

Thank you to all who joined from around the world for this celebration of the 2021 International Women of Courage.  We extend our heartfelt congratulations to all of the awardees, and our best wishes as they continue on their virtual journeys across America.

And now, to conclude today’s ceremony, let’s see our wonderful International Women of Courage 2021 awardees one more time.  Thank you.