Established in 2007, this annual award honors women from around the world who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in order to bring about positive change to their communities, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. To date, under the IWOC program, the U.S. Department of State has recognized more than 180 women in 80 countries. All awardees have advocated for the protection of human rights, advanced gender equity and equality, empowered women and girls, in all their diversity, and fostered peace and government transparency around the world.
2023 International Women of Courage
Dr. Zakira Hekmat
Afghanistan (residing in Türkiye)
“Courage is the ability to face and overcome challenges and adversity in pursuit of one’s beliefs and values, even when the odds seem insurmountable. Courage for me is not just a momentary act but a continuous journey of pushing against the obstacles and striving to create change in society.”
Born an internally displaced person in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, Zakira Hekmat completed high school secretly under the Taliban’s first period of control. After winning a scholarship to study in Türkiye, she eventually qualified as a medical doctor in 2018. Throughout her medical studies, Dr. Hekmat volunteered with refugee assistance organizations where she recognized a need to advocate for marginalized refugee groups’ rights and access to services. From a one-room office, she founded the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association in Türkiye in 2014, where she has since worked tirelessly to advocate for the rights of all refugees and women. As one of the few female leaders of a refugee-led community organization in Türkiye, she called on the Turkish government and public not to forget and assist those fleeing conflict and persecution, especially after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Thanks to Dr. Hekmat’s efforts, many Afghans, especially women, girls, and minorities, have received access to refugee protection and asylum.
Ms. Alba Rueda
“Courage is understanding that situations can be different and assuming the power to transform them.”
Alba Rueda, Argentina’s current Special Envoy for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship, was the first Argentine Undersecretary for Diversity Policies in the newly created Ministry of Women, Gender, and Diversity. Ms. Rueda was the driving force behind Argentina’s executive order on the transgender labor quota in the public sector which was converted into the Transgender Labor Quota Act. She previously worked in the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in their National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) as well as the Argentine Secretariat for Human Rights. She is one of the founders of Argentina Trans Women (MTA) and actively engages with Notitrans, the first transgender magazine in Argentina. She actively campaigned to change the name of the National Women’s Conference to the “Plurinational Conference of Women and Lesbian, Cross-Dresser, Transgender, Bisexual, Intersex and Non-Binary Persons” to include diverse, dissident, and racialized identities. Her activism led her to fight for the Marriage Equality Act, the Gender Identity Act, and the Diana Sacayán and Lohana Berkins Act on the Promotion of Access to Formal Employment by Cross-Dresser, Transsexual and Transgender Persons. Her hope is to establish an LGBTQI+ foreign policy agenda and mainstream it into the various negotiation fora, including into multilateral fora and bilateral relations as well as represent the Global South.
Professor Danièle Darlan
Central African Republic
“Courage is facing life’s trials, rising back up and continuing, and maintaining your integrity even in adversity.”
Professor Danièle Darlan, the former President of the Central African Republic’s Constitutional Court, has earned the title of an International Woman of Courage for her defense of her nation’s constitution, her heroism in safeguarding judicial independence, and her refusal to be influenced by threats or political pressure. Her final act as President of the Court before her removal by the government, in which she found that methods proposed to redraft the constitution were not legally sound, exemplified her unwavering commitment to the rule of law. This courageous stand capped a lengthy and distinguished career as a lawyer, educator, judge, and advocate for institution building and women’s rights in one of the world’s poorest countries. Professor Darlan’s championship of equity and transparency in the Central African Republic’s legal system has endured through coups d’état and years of civil conflict. As the Central African Republic’s most prominent female government official and the first woman to head the Constitutional Court, her tenacity has earned her the nickname “Woman of Iron” and a top spot on Jeune Afrique’s list of “The Thirty Building Tomorrow’s Africa.”
Ms. Doris Ríos
“Courage is to raise your voice in spite of fear, tears, and pain.”
Doris Ríos is a recognized Cabécarindigenous leader and well-respected member of the China Kichá indigenous community. Ms. Ríos is involved in multiple influential initiatives to improve indigenous lives. She is the Vice-president of the National Indigenous Board of Costa Rica, which implements programs for indigenous communities centered around agriculture, animal care, reforestation, and cultural training. Ms. Ríos also acts as a consultant for legislators, executive and judicial branch institutions, international organizations, and civil society on how development projects or legislation may affect indigenous territories, helping to promote the “buenvivir” philosophy of living in harmony with one’s environment held by many indigenous peoples. As a member of the National Women’s Indigenous Forum, Ms. Ríos advocated for the participation of women in issues of security, sustainable development, peaceful defense of human rights, and the recovering of indigenous land. Ms. Ríos was also a member of the Indigenous Committees to Address COVID -19. She worked to raise awareness regarding the vulnerability of indigenous people and their limited access to vital resources and medical care during the pandemic.
“Courage is choosing the truth and to stand for it, even if it isn’t popular, because in the end, the truth shall make you free.”
Meaza Mohammed, a veteran Ethiopian journalist, is the founder of Roha TV, an independent YouTube-based news and information channel. Such channels have become increasingly popular in Ethiopia, where broadcast media are almost entirely state-controlled, as a way to disseminate news and analysis that diverges from the official government line. Her reporting has included coverage of the survivors of gender-based violence, including sexual violence in the current conflict—women she has then worked directly with to find treatment and other resources. On her platform, Mohammed has shared interviews with dozens of women who were been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted by armed militants during the northern conflict. She has been a strong voice advocating for investigation of and accountability for human rights violations during the conflict, impressing foreign observers with her clear drive, determination, and perseverance to speak the truth and to share the stories she saw with the world. She produced a documentary about 17 students abducted from university and continues to work on freeing them three years later through the NGO she helped found on their behalf. Mohammed’s vocal activism has not been without personal risk. She has been arrested repeatedly and charged with multiple counts, including allegedly spreading false rumors and disclosing the army’s battlefield location to the enemy. Despite her arrests, Mohammed remains committed to advocating for victims of gender-based violence and ensuring accountability for the crimes committed against them.
Ms. Hadeel Abdel Aziz
“Finding the strength to withstand adversity, and to make difficult decisions not because you are unaware of the risks, but because you are driven towards a bigger dream.”
Human rights activist Hadeel Abdel Aziz is a frontline defender of Jordan’s most marginalized, including juveniles, refugees, migrants, and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. As founder of the Justice Center for Legal Aid (JCLA), a leading legal aid provider in Jordan, Ms. Abdel Aziz has built a nationwide network of clinics which provide services to thousands of vulnerable individuals every year. Ms. Abdel Aziz and JCLA have played a critical role in advocating against arbitrary detention, including detention of women “for their own protection” from so-called honor crimes. Ms. Abdel Aziz has been a consistent advocate for access to justice for all Jordanians, and a constructive partner with government institutions. Over more than a decade of leadership, she has demonstrated courage in presenting a clear-eyed vision for how a fairer justice system can strengthen Jordan.
“[Courage is] the ability to be free and honest.”
Bakhytzhan Toregozhina is a civil society activist who has campaigned for the protection of fundamental human rights in Kazakhstan for nearly twenty-five years. Since January 2022, she has been the head of “Qantar 2022” (January 2022) a coalition of civil society organizations working to assist victims and document human rights violations associated with the widespread unrest that occurred in Kazakhstan last January. Throughout her career, Toregozhina has been a leading voice representing victims of torture, abuse, and politicized repression. She has worked to defend people persecuted for the peaceful expression of their beliefs and has successfully campaigned for the release of many political prisoners. As a result of her work, she has repeatedly faced threats and harassment. Her decades-long commitment to this difficult work stands as testament to the vital role human rights defenders can play in holding governments accountable and encouraging respect for basic rights and freedoms. She continues these efforts today through Qantar 2022, and her public foundation “Ar.Rukh.Khak” (Dignity.Spirit.Truth)
Senator Datuk Ras Adiba Radzi
“Having courage makes the invisible, visible. Hence continuing to uphold human rights and freedom, despite the struggles and hardships, is of the utmost. We are not here alone, but, as Peoples of the earth. We pick up the pieces, strategise and rise, together.”
Senator Datuk Ras Adiba Radzi has spent most of her professional life advancing and promoting human rights, selflessly advocating for vulnerable populations and using her platforms to shed light on injustices in Malaysian society. She was first known as a famous broadcast journalist and news presenter, television presenter, and sports commentator. Born able bodied, she became permanently paralyzed from the waist down after a spinal injury following a car accident and then a brutal assault six years after the accident. Since then, she has committed her life to fighting for the rights of persons with disabilities in Malaysia. After her injuries, she continued as a journalist while also founding OKU Sentral, an NGO to empower the persons with disabilities community. Because of her prominence and over 34 years’ experience in journalism, she has raised the conversation about rights and access for persons with disabilities to the national level and made it normal for people to see her on TV or in parliament in a wheelchair. In May 2020, the Malaysian King appointed Ras Adiba Radzi senator as the representative for persons with disabilities. In November 2020, Senator Ras Adiba was appointed the first female chair of the Malaysian national news agency, Bernama, significant as Malaysia lacks women, and even more so persons with disabilities, in leadership roles. Senator Ras Adiba also became a national Paralympic sharpshooter and earned a spot in the Malaysian Book of Records for ‘wheeling’ 420km in 13 days from Johor Bharu to Putrajaya in her wheelchair.
Brigadier General Bolor Ganbold
“When you look back, courage is each and every moment of your life spent honorably.”
In nearly 30 years of service to her country, Brigadier General Bolor Ganbold has achieved a series of firsts that have broken barriers and opened the door for other women to follow; from being the first female cadet admitted to the Military University of Mongolia to being Mongolia’s first female staff officer assigned to a United Nations Peacekeeping Operation. On March 18, 2022, Brigadier General Bolor earned yet another first, becoming the first woman general in the Mongolian Armed Forces. Her experiences as a member of both the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad in 2010 and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in 2013, as well as serving as a Peacekeeping Affairs Officer within the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, have guided her efforts in seeking to reduce the various barriers that prevent women from fully developing their potential as peacekeepers. Brigadier General Bolor utilizes her current position as the Chief of the Education and Training Directorate of the General Staff of the Mongolian Armed Forces to advance gender equality in all facets of the Mongolian Armed Forces’ organizational structure, activities, and operations.
Mrs. Bianka Zalewska
“Courage is not the lack of fear, but the ability to act in spite of it.”
Bianka Zalewska is a Polish humanitarian and journalist who has selflessly documented Russian aggression in Ukraine since 2014 and advocated for the people of Ukraine for more than a decade. She persevered through life-threatening injuries suffered when her press car came under fire from Russian proxy forces in Luhansk Oblast in 2014. She persists in the face of disinformation campaigns and online threats personally aimed at her and her family and the risks of violence and injury during her frequent work inside Ukraine. As a visible advocate for the inclusion of refugees from Ukraine, Mrs. Zalewska advocates as host of one of the most-watched morning shows in Poland while simultaneously compiling the stories of refugees and documenting evidence of war crimes to send to Polish authorities. In the face of ever-present threats, Mrs. Zalewska remains unintimidated and continues to welcome refugees from Ukraine, bring to light Russian atrocities, report truthfully and responsibly from the frontlines, and personally deliver aid inside Ukraine.
Mrs. Yuliia Paievska
“Courage means the ability to stay focused on a higher goal regardless of circumstances; to go to the end remaining faithful to your convictions, to remember where the truth is in the face of death. Courage is to serve and protect your people, to act for the good of your country, for the sake of the future generations and the idea of freedom for the whole world.”
Yuliia “Taira” Paievska has demonstrated extraordinary moral and physical courage in defending Ukraine against relentless Russian aggression. She provided medical treatment to Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity protestors in 2013, and as head of Taira’s Angels, a volunteer unit of paramedics, she provided tactical medical training on the Donbas front lines from 2014 to 2018. Mrs. Paievska is best known for her work secretly filming and smuggling out videos documenting atrocities committed by Russia’s forces in Mariupol. Russia’s forces detained Mrs. Paievska on March 16 as she attempted to evacuate women and children from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhya, despite her clear non-combatant status. During a three-month imprisonment, Mrs. Paievska lived in a tiny cell with 22 other women, losing 20 pounds and enduring torture and beatings. Moreover, the Kremlin’s propagandists falsely maligned her internationally as a fascist and war criminal. To date, Mrs. Paievska has rescued over 600 people. Yet Mrs. Paievska refused to be silenced, and since her release has compellingly advocated for Ukrainian democracy and independence both at home and abroad.
Madeleine Albright Honorary Group Award – the Women and Girl Protestors of Iran
The September 16 death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, visiting Tehran from her home in Kurdistan, while in the custody of Iran’s so-called “Morality Police,” sparked months of grassroots, women-led protests across Iran’s 31 provinces. Iran’s state-sponsored violence against women has a long history, yet Amini’s brutal killing touched a nerve in Iranian society, galvanizing a protest movement. In the days following Amini’s death, Iranian women and girls took the streets, removing and burning their headscarves, and cutting their hair. Their courage and defiance inspired waves of others – including men and boys – to join them en masse. Schoolgirls also joined the movement; social media quickly filled with images of young girls defiantly protesting in their classrooms and standing up to school administrators who tried to stop them. Despite the brutal response that followed, which killed hundreds of peaceful protesters, including around 70 children, the women and girls of Iran persisted.