In 2015, Dr. Julieta Montaño was awarded the Secretary’s International Women of Courage Award to combat gender-based violence and multiple forms of discrimination in Bolivia. The award recognizes women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. She is one of 20 stellar women from Latin America and the Caribbean who has received the award since its creation in 2007.
Born to an indigenous Quechua family and jailed in 1981 during the dictatorship of Garcia Meza, Dr. Montaño has never shied from advocating for the rights of Bolivian women. She has provided legal assistance to women in some of the most emblematic cases of rape, sexual assault, and domestic abuse in Bolivia’s history and has influenced nearly every piece of legislation that advanced women’s rights in Bolivia over the past 30 years.
We recently reached out to Ms. Montaño to find out what impact the award and the International Visitors Leadership Program experience had on her.
1. What impact did the Secretary’s International Women of Courage Award (IWOC) have for you? Did it affect where you are today in any way?
Personally, the award meant greater responsibility and commitment. I took it as a challenge to maintain the path of defending human rights, particularly those of women, girls, and boys.
2. Please tell us about any key takeaways or lessons learned from the IWOC experience and International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). Are you still in touch with fellow awardees you met? Any stories you would like to share from that experience?
It was a very shocking experience to meet women who work for the recognition and respect of human rights in such difficult contexts regardless of their professional training, religion, or economic position. Many times, they risk their lives, safety, and freedom to do so. I met and spoke with brave women who were generous with their knowledge and time. We had the chance to get to know each other as human beings; and, through them I was able to learn more about the social, political, economic, cultural, and religious realities in their countries. During our visits to New York, Washington, and Indianapolis I was very pleased to discover U.S. women’s organizations that, like us, fight against discrimination based on gender, economic status, sexual orientation, race, and other conditions, and that support victims of gender-based violence in their efforts to seek justice.
I witnessed the trial of a woman accused of drug trafficking charges in Indianapolis where I saw that both the prosecution and the defense solidly incorporated gender considerations into their arguments for the judge to keep in mind when rendering her verdict. To me, this was a lesson learned about the importance of including a crosscutting gender-based approach throughout the entire judicial system, no matter if a woman is the defendant or the plaintiff. That experience was very important because as a human rights defender I have spent many years trying to get the justice system in Bolivia to wear gender sensitive glasses.
Unfortunately, I am not currently in touch with the other women who received the award with me. However, I have not lost hope that at some point I will get to see at least one of them again. The language barrier was one of the factors that prevented me from communicating with them. Communication with the help of online translating tools is not difficult anymore.
3. Recognizing all the amazing work you have already accomplished, what impact do you want to have on the region and world in the years to come? What will success look like for you? Any specific goals you are working on currently?
If my health allows, I want to continue fighting for democracy and human rights, against authoritarianism, corruption, and trafficking of women and girls. I am currently participating in activism through social networks because I still face some health issues.
4. What advice do you have for girls and young women who aspire to be leaders and reach their full potential?
They have to be consistent about the values they support. A good leader cannot say something and do something else. They have to be aware of the risks involved in embracing the cause of human rights and realize that defending them requires stripping yourself of all kinds of prejudices and stereotypes. You have to value people as human beings, aside from their beliefs or political interests.
If you decide to become a political leader, keep in mind that fighting for democratic values is what will allow us to achieve the peace and social justice society badly needs. Politicians must divest themselves of Manichaeism and should stop looking at the world only in black and white. Instead, they should recognize that the richness of humankind lies in its diversity. We must move away from the temptation of practicing hate speech and looking at political opponents as enemies. A good leader is a promoter of peace and recognizes the dignity of all human beings.
As Dr. Montaño continues her work to advance human rights and democratic values in Bolivia, she serves as a reminder that we all have a role to play to keep moving the needle forward on these issues throughout the region; we can decide to sit idly by or choose to act, even if those actions may appear small at the moment. Challenging and evolving times call for increased creativity and ability to adapt, as well as the need to listen and learn from one another –whether that happens in person or remotely. While we cannot always control what happens around us, we decide how to respond to those challenges – as Dr. Montaño has done through her leadership and courageous lifetime of efforts in Bolivia.