Founder's Wall
Report from 2011 International Women of Courage Awards, Washington, D.C.

Introduced: March 09 2011

"Today is a beautiful day. The sun is shining in our house."

 

It was an African metaphor for the feeling of good will that filled the room at the 2011 International Women of Courage Awards yesterday in Washington, D.C.. The annual awards, hosted last year and this year by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and started in 2007 by Condoleezza Rice to celebrate International Women's Day), recognized 10 exceptional women. They come from 10 different countries and have each faced challenges even worse than trying to find a parking place near Starbucks.

 

It was a beautiful day to be a woman -- with strong, courageous women, for once, being in the spotlight.

 

The first female Prime Minister of Australia was there, too -- as a special guest, not an award recipient. Another leader did receive an award: Roza Otunbayeva, the President of Kyrgyzstan, is Central Asia's first female head of state.

 

I don't know about you, but I haven't followed goings-on in Krygyzstan over the past two decades. It is a tale of corruption, scandals, ethnic clashes, false starts at democracy, questionable judicial proceedings, heightened governmental powers, invalidated elections -- all climaxing in April 2010 riots that overthrew the former President, a man named Kurmanbek Bakiev. President Otunbayeva was then appointed to bring the country together and move it toward the next round of elections; her term expires in December 2011 and she is prohibited from running again. She described her mission as "building a country based on the rule of law." (If you'd like to read an essay by President Otunbayeva, try this link:

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/07/AR2011030703899.html
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/07/AR2011030703899.html

Secretary of State Clinton praised her for being courageous enough to step up when her country needed her -- and also being willing to "let go" when it's time for the democratic process to proceed. As Secretary Clinton pointed out -- sometimes democratic revolutions lead to dictatorships that last for decades, but this will not be the case in Kyrgyzstan.

 

President Otunbayeva told the story of a public gathering that was scheduled a year ago (and a month before the riots) in her country to celebrate International Women's Day. "What could be less threatening than a gathering of women, some pushing strollers?" Otunbayeva said. But only about a dozen activists showed up, so great was the fear they faced at that time.

 

The award recipient whom I quoted at the beginning of this e-mail is Henriette Ekwe Ebongo of Cameroon. She is a journalist who has spent more than 30 years working for press freedom, human rights, and gender equality in her country -- despite constant persecution. I had the chance to meet her and learned that when she leaves D.C. this week, she is coming to Chicago to speak to Northwestern University's journalism students about her life's work.

 

Another recipient is the only female Roma (aka "gypsy") member of Parliament in Hungary. And from Mexico, there is the first woman ever appointed to the position of Assistant Attorney General for Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime in Mexico. Talk about courage!

 

Talk about courage!

 

I'll write more in coming days about the recipients -- in case you're interested -- and about other things I learned during a briefing at the State Department, including the guiding principles behind Secretary Clinton's approach to world diplomacy.

 

I came away realizing how little we know about what's taking place in the world if we depend on the news media -- especially if we only listen to media that say things we agree with.

 

And I think the message for the people who were honored yesterday as "Women of Courage" is: You are not alone in your struggle.

 

Hope the sun is shining in your house today!

 

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