Remarks at the 2017 Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award Ceremony
Under Secretary for Political Affairs
MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump; Acting Deputy Secretary of State Tom Shannon; and the 2017 International Women of Courage Award recipients. (Applause.)
UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Good morning. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you to the State Department and the 2017 International Women of Courage Awards ceremony. Madam First Lady, Mrs. Melania Trump, thank you so much for being with us today. We are deeply honored by your participation in this important celebration and grateful for your commitment and that of the President to the well-being and success of women and girls across the globe.
Please join me again in welcoming the First Lady. (Applause.)
I would also like to welcome the members of the diplomatic corps who are with us here today, and of course, the women joining us on this stage, the 2017 International Women of Courage. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
The Secretary of State’s Award for International Women of Courage is part of our celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. The Secretary wanted to be here to present these awards himself. Regrettably, he is on his way to Ankara and Brussels, but he extends his heartfelt congratulations to these honorees.
Since 2007, this award has honored women from around the world who have exhibited exceptional courage and leadership, who have drawn strength from adversity to help transform their societies. These women have mobilized public sentiment and their governments to expose and address injustice, speak against corruption, prevent violent extremism, and stand up for the rule of law and peace, often with little more than their voices and sheer determination.
We are honored to recognize this incredible group. Shortly, you will hear each woman’s story. They are an inspiring reminder of how individuals can make a difference. Taken together, they provide a powerful message of courage and leadership. As we celebrate the accomplishments of these women, we also provide them with a platform for telling their stories.
After this celebration, they will participate in a State Department-sponsored exchange program to engage with American audiences around our country, contributing to the tradition of people-to-people diplomacy. The United States is proud to honor these leaders as part of our commitment to advance the status of women and girls around the world.
I want to take a moment to thank my colleagues in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues for the work they do to ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment are integrated into our foreign policy. I also want to recognize the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, whose programs, like the International Visitors Leadership Program on which these women are about to embark, are an important element of our diplomacy. The work of our colleagues here at the State Department embodies a commitment that comes from the very top of our administration.
As Secretary Tillerson has said, there is study after study to confirm that when you empower women in these developing parts of the world, you change the future of the country, because you change the cycle within the family. Women’s empowerment is not just a moral imperative; it is a strategic investment in our collective security. In short, when women do better, countries do better. Women’s security is a matter of international security. Without it, we all lose.
President Trump and his administration are committed to expanding opportunities for women and girls domestically and across the globe. On February 13, President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau launched the United States-Canada Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders. On February 28th, President Trump signed two bills into law – first, the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers and Innovators and Explorers Act; and second, the Promoting Women and Entrepreneurship Act, both of which encourage women to pursue careers in engineering, science, and mathematics, and to provide support for women’s entrepreneurial programs through the National Science Foundation.
So it gives me great pleasure to introduce someone who has played a central role in that effort. As a philanthropist and a humanitarian, the First Lady has been a driving force behind the administration’s efforts to promote the empowerment of women and children in our society. Mrs. Trump has been an honorary chairwoman for the Boys’ Club of New York for five consecutive years, and in 2005 was awarded the title of goodwill ambassador by the American Red Cross. She helped launch National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April 2008, and has been a champion for the American Heart Association. Her deep concern for issues affecting women and children continue as she has focused as First Lady on the challenge of cyberbullying among our youth.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming the First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Melania Trump. (Applause.)
(First Lady Melania Trump delivers remarks.)
UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Thank you very much for your inspiring words, and once again, thank you for honoring us with your presence here today. As the First Lady noted, courage takes many forms. This year, we’re pleased to recognize 13 extraordinary women who are demonstrating courage in four pivotal areas: exposing and opposing gender-based violence, standing up to terrorists, combating corruption, promoting justice and human rights for all. Twelve of them are here today. We will call each one here to the podium, next to the First Lady, to receive her award and then have an opportunity to hear from some of the awardees.
The first awardee is Sharmin Akter of Bangladesh. Sharmin, who recently turned 17, defied intense family pressure to marry a man decades older when she was just 15, despite there being a law in Bangladesh that prohibited early and forced marriage. Holding her ground, and filing charges against her own family, Sharmin gained the support of a newspaper journalist who helped to expose the case, and she won the right to continue her education. In standing up for her rights, she sets a precedent for other girls and their families to invest in their girls and envision a new future of opportunity for them.
Sharmin is being honored for her exceptional courage and perseverance to break the silence around early and forced marriage, and for being a role model for other girls who suffer needlessly from this harmful practice. Sharmin. (Applause.)
Our next awardee is Arlette Contreras Bautista of Peru, a survivor of abuse and of violence. Her attack by a well-connected city councilman was filmed and splashed across social media and television. Arlette turned her own personal tragedy into a national cause for advocacy. When her abuser was sentenced to a token one-year suspended sentence, Arlette spoke out and dedicated herself to working with other victims of violence, which eventually led to her launching a grassroots movement called Not One Woman Less, to raise awareness of gender-based violence.
Arlette is being honored for her fearless activism on behalf of survivors of gender-based violence and for standing up to demand that the government and judiciary hold perpetrators to account. Thank you. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Malebogo Molefhe from Botswana, a beautiful country. A former national basketball player who had her whole life ahead of her, Malebogo was brutally assaulted at the hand of an ex-boyfriend, escaped death, and now uses a wheelchair due to the injuries she endured. Malebogo has dedicated her life to teaching other girls to fight harmful gender stereotypes and domestic abuse.
Malebogo is being honored for her tenacity, strength, and resilience to help other women and girls overcome the scourge of domestic violence, especially those who have become disabled as a result of such abuse. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Natalia Ponce de Leon from Colombia. In surviving a sulfuric acid attack by a stalker, Natalia underwent multiple surgeries to address burns to her face and body. She calls her recovery a rebirth, which led her to start her own foundation to help other acid attack survivors. As a result of her advocacy, the Colombian Congress passed the Natalia Ponce de Leon Law in January 2016.
Natalia is being honored for her relentless pursuit of justice against acid attacks and fighting for the promotion of a law to hold perpetrators to account. Natalia. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Jannat Al Ghezi from Iraq. After surviving domestic abuse, Jannat’s tribal family threatened her life. She now dedicates her life to protecting other women from violence. She has furthered the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq’s cause of providing shelter, protection, training, and legal services for women, including those who have suffered brutality at the hands of ISIS.
Jannat is being honored for selflessly working on behalf of women survivors of abuse, courageously telling her story at great risk to her personal safety, and for providing shelter, education, and opportunities for women to reclaim their lives from the threat of violence and extremism. Jannat. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Major Aichatou Issaka Ousmane of Niger. Soldier, mother, and United Nations peacekeeper, Major Ousmane of Niger exemplifies what it means for a woman to serve on the front lines of conflict and peace-building. She has not only helped people deal with the trauma caused by conflict and the threat of violent extremism, including Boko Haram; she also understands the deep need for social services to pave the way to recovery for families affected by war and conflict.
Major Ousmane is being honored for her steadfast devotion to healing those wounded by conflict and terrorism, for demanding social services for those left to suffer the consequences of war in order to prevent further violent extremism. Major Ousmane. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Veronica Simogun from Papua New Guinea. Founder of the Family for Change Association and advocate for women and girls in Papua New Guinea, Veronica lives and works in a country where two-thirds of women and girls have been physically and sexually abused due to their gender. Despite facing death threats for her work with survivors, Veronica has devoted herself to helping others and to building relationships with local law enforcement and men and boys to overturn the cultural norms that deprive women and girls of their status and basic rights.
Veronica is being honored for her relentless dedication to protecting victims of violence and vulnerable women and children and for the pursuit of supportive partners in men and boys to make her country a violence-free society. Veronica. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Rebecca Kabugho of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Subjected to repression, arrests, and months in jail for her political activism and speaking her mind, Rebecca was, at age 22, dubbed one of the youngest prisoners of conscience in the world. Rebecca played a key role in a series of peaceful and nonviolent demonstrations demanding the Congolese Government hold credible elections in 2016, as required by the Congolese constitution. Upon her release in 2016, she emerged as a voice demanding democratic reform and social change.
Rebecca is being honored for her visionary leadership, commitment to ushering in positive change through nonviolence, and for standing up to improve the lives of the disadvantaged in her country. Rebecca. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Sandya Eknelygoda from Sri Lanka. When her husband, a well-known political cartoonist and journalist, disappeared in January 2010, Sandya resolved to seek the truth about his fate. She appeared in court more than 80 times in the face of obstructionist judges and authorities. Sandya has become a symbol for the many thousands of persons who have suffered the loss of disappeared relatives over the course of the 27-year civil war and earlier insurrections.
Sandya is being honored for her relentless pursuit of the truth about those who have disappeared during conflict, holding the government accountable, and bringing hope to others suffering a similar fate. Sandya. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Saadet Ozkan of Turkey. As an elementary school teacher, Saadet took the rare and bold step of exposing the sexual abuse of children by the principal of a small village school. Even after suffering a debilitating car accident that left her incapacitated for months, she refused to back down from her claims, despite pressure from the authorities and threats by other teachers.
Saadet is being honored for her unwavering determination to uncover generations of sexual abuse of schoolchildren, particularly girls, and for her integrity in pursuing justice in the face of government pressure and apathy. Saadet. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Sister Carolin Tahhan of Syria. Sister Carolin, a Roman Catholic nun working in Damascus, is being recognized for her outreach and service to the refugee community, internally displaced persons, and children. Putting her own life at risk, Sister Carolin has become a beacon of hope to both Muslims and Christians alike. In addition to running a nursery school and providing a safe environment for traumatized children, she also runs a tailoring workshop to provide job skills to vulnerable displaced women.
Sister Carolin is being honored for her perseverance in serving those affected by the Syrian conflict and willingness to safeguard and empower the most vulnerable, including children, refugees, and displaced women. Sister Carolin. (Applause.)
Our next honoree is Fadia Thabet of Yemen. A child protection officer and reporter on human rights violations in southern Yemen during the recent conflicts, Fadia risked her life to protect the region’s children from al-Qaida and Houthi militias. Her acts of courage dissuaded young boys from joining terror groups and militias. She exposed al-Qaida’s Yemeni branch, Ansar al-Sharia, as a recruiter of child soldiers, as well as documented human rights violations by other armed groups for the United Nations.
Fadia is being honored for putting her own life at risk to protect children from being recruited by terrorist groups and militias and her bravery in exposing the human rights and violations and crimes committed by various armed groups. Fadia. (Applause.)
Finally, we honor one woman who is not able to be here today, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh of Vietnam. An outspoken critic of injustice and human rights violations, blogger, and online activist, Nguyen has been held incommunicado at a detention center since October after exposing a toxic waste dump, one of the worst environmental disasters in Vietnam’s history. While Nguyen cannot join her fellow women of courage at this ceremony, we admire her for refusing to be silenced and her defense of freedom of expression.
Nguyen is being honored for her resoluteness to expose injustices and corruption and using her voice to stand up for the protection of people’s rights and freedoms. (Applause.)
Now it is my pleasure and my honor to introduce two of our International Women of Courage who will give remarks on behalf of the group. May I bring to the podium Malebogo Molefhe of Botswana and Natalia Ponce de Leon of Colombia. (Applause.)
MS MOLEFHE: First Lady Melania Trump, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. Today, for me, marks the pinnacle of every woman’s success story. I am greatly honored to speak on behalf of the phenomenal awardees. Oftentimes, we work selflessly, we sacrifice so others can learn from us. We allow ourselves to be brave despite the ridicule, the judgments, and the societal prejudice. This moment is for everyone who has supported me, most importantly, my family and my friends, and – (applause) – and for the courageous women who have stopped at nothing to effect change.
As a gender-based violence survivor and also a woman in – living with a disability, a result of a brutal attack, I take pride in knowing that I didn’t lose my strength, and I continue to use my story to inspire other women and to learn from me, and to partake in changing – in helping change the lives of others who may be going through a situation in their lives and not knowing how to exit.
Allow me, please, to thank the organizers of this event for recognizing women who has made an impacting impression and continues to make a telling contribution in their societies and helping shape the lives of other women and helping change the brutal perceptions of the world. Thank you. (Applause.)
MS PONCE DE LEON: Hello, everyone. I never would have dreamed I would have the honor to be speaking to you today. Let alone, I wouldn’t have imagined that in order to be here today, I would first have to go through a nightmare, and later, a rebirth.
Almost three years ago, I was at my mom’s house, and I receive a call. Supposedly, my ex-boyfriend left me something for me at the door. I did not pay much attention, and when I went to take out the garbage, I was surprised by a man in a hood who attacked me with a liter of sulfuric acid. I felt my skin burning, my clothes torn apart by the chemical, and I started losing my sight. By the time I arrive at the hospital, 37 percent of my body was burned and my entire face. My doctors were not sure what percentage of my internal body was affected. I could be blind or have muscle trauma for a lifetime. It was a time of doubt and uncertainty.
Today, I thank my doctor for being my guardian angel and for everything he has taught me. During my recovery, I understood that I had two options: the easy way, I could lie in bed, filling myself up with hate and anger; or the hard way, standing strong and making all these tragedies something greater. And so I did.
Two days ago, it was three years since the day of the attack. I ended a life I had planned and I started a different one. I believe that after a long process, I can assure you that on March – 27th of March, I died and I was reborn from the ashes. Amazingly, I started a better life, a life with a mission, a life dedicated to a bigger purpose.
My attack was not the only one, and I started to contact with other victims of acid attacks. Talking to other victims was a relief and a pain at the same time. It was living again what happened to me. It required a lot of strength. I would not have accomplished what I did in three years without strength. I was mentally strength the effort to understand that a pain and suffering was something transcendent. Courage is just a word without strength to accomplish it. Our goals, small or big – that is subjective. My biggest goal at the beginning was getting out of bed, like everyone else. Today my biggest goal is to create a burn unit for hospitals in Colombia. The most powerful tool we have is our mind and its strength. It gives us opportunity to aim further and reach higher.
None of our goals, mine (inaudible) would have been accomplished without constancy. For me, constancy is a quality to remain invaluable, regardless our circumstances. It requires keeping yourself firm on mind along the way. Constancy, keeping throughout 30 surgeries, five massages a day, no matter how painful they were, and the constant use of a mask to allow my skin to get back to where it was supposed to be.
I am not a perfect human being. Honestly, none of us are. But the wonderfulness about being a human being lies in the capacity for resilience and moving forward. In order to do that, it is important to leave the past behind. Forgiveness is what made me stand up and accept myself, accept my fate, and move forward. I forgive how others wronged me. I forgive how I wronged myself. That built me up and gave me confidence. Forgiveness and belief is the tool to move forward. When you move forward, you know where you are heading, but you don’t know where you will end at.
I created a foundation to help victims of attack like me – like mine. Later, Colombia’s government passed a law with tougher sentences – tough sentences for acid attacks. Today, I work hard to give my country the capacity to respond to these attacks, help survivors, and create more burn units in Colombia. What will happen next, I don’t know. But I trust that, with the strength, constancy, and forgiveness, we will end this horror.
My message for you today is to take those three words, make them yours. Use them in any order you will be willing to use them. The order will not affect the product, because the outcome will be a human built, that we use what they have to help others to make our society better.
As a woman, I feel moved by other survivors of these attacks. Also, I feel moved to see, as a woman, we have developed our sense of resilience to its maximum. In so many fields, women help their communities to improve their life standard. It is our task to honor what others have accomplished for us, to acknowledge the privileged position we are in. We live now in a world with rights for everyone, because of others having cleared this path for us with their own sweats.
We have nothing left than to clear the future path, to have the courage that, no matter how tough situation are, we can reach more. This is not only my fight; it’s everyone’s fight, because tomorrow this could be your son’s story, your daughter’s story, or your own story. It is our task to keep the future bright.
To all my fellows today here who are honored here today, I saluted for – I salute you for your resilience and your courage. Thank you so much. (Applause.)
UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Two incredible statements by two incredible women. There’s really nothing left to say – (laughter) – except to thank all of you for your presence here today. We have a stand-up crowd. This shows how important this issue is here in Washington, here in the United States, and to this administration and to the American people. So we’re very grateful for your presence here today. Once again, we are grateful for the presence of the First Lady. Ma’am, again, you have honored us. Thank you. (Applause.)
And to the 2017 International Women of Courage awardees, thank you all for what you have done and all that you will continue to do. Thank you for your bravery and your commitment. We honor you and we honor your work. (Applause.)
We had an opportunity to take a photo with these incredible women, but we did not have an opportunity to take a photo with them holding their awards. So if you don’t mind, if I could just ask you to hold tight for a moment as we gather them here and take a photograph with the First Lady. But again, thank you all very, very much for being here today. (Applause.)