Remarks at the 2018 Annual International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony

Remarks
Heather Nauert, Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and State Department Spokesperson
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
March 23, 2018


MS NAUERT: Good afternoon, everyone. Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 2018 International Women of Courage Award recipients. You can applause. (Laughter.) (Applause.) We would like to welcome them into the room. (Applause.) And they have come a long, long way to get here to meet you in Washington. (Applause.)

And next I’d like to welcome First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump. Melania, Mrs. Trump, welcome. (Applause.)

Thank you, everyone, and welcome to the State Department. I am honored to welcome you to the 12th Annual Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards, which have recognized more than 120 remarkable women from dozens of countries since the award’s inception.

In addition to the privilege of being joined by the First Lady, I would also like to extend a special welcome to the members of the diplomatic corps in the audience, including Ambassador Callista Gingrich. Where is she? She’s here somewhere. Thank you, there she is. Ambassador Gingrich, welcome. (Applause.) She joins us from the Vatican today and has been in Washington this week. It’s wonderful to have you back here with us.

We know that women’s voices are critical to global security, prosperity, and peace, which is why the Department of State annually presents the International Women of Courage Awards. Each awardee’s story is an inspiring reminder of how individuals can make a difference. Taken together, they provide a powerful message of courage and leadership. And you can read some of their profiles in your pamphlets that you have with you.

This year we have recognized 10 extraordinary women who have demonstrated not only courage and leadership, but a deep resolve to fight day in and day out for what they believe. The formidable leaders include a former slave and anti-slavery activist, a human rights lawyer documenting abuse under the junta rule, a nun sheltering internally displaced people from violence, a writer, director, and producer who wrote scripts under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and a courageous advocate for the families of forcibly disappeared persons. We are so happy to have them here today.

The United States is proud to honors these leaders as part of our commitment to advancing 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 that they do to ensure that women’s equality and empowerment are integrated into our U.S. foreign policy. Our GWI folks, thank you so much for bringing them all together. (Applause.)

I’d also like to recognize the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, whose people-to-people programs are a critical element of our diplomacy, including the International Visitor Leadership Program these women are about to embark on for the next two weeks, I believe, as they share their stories with audiences around the United States.

This commitment to women’s empowerment is the reason that President Trump signed the Women, Peace, and Security Act into law last October. The new law affirms the United States commitment to expanding women’s leadership on the issues of international peace and security, especially efforts to prevent conflict and atrocities, promote peace and counterterrorism, and also violent extremism. We know that when women are empowered, communities are safer and countries are more stable. We see that around the world every day.

Another way to ensure that women are empowered is by expanding economic access and opportunity. Reports show that if the world closed the gender gap in workforce participation, global GDP would increase by $28 trillion by the year 2025. That is precisely why President Trump galvanized the creation of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Finance Initiative through a U.S. contribution of $50 million at the G20 Leaders Summit last summer. Along with contributions from international partners, the initiative has leveraged more than 340 million in support to help advance women’s entrepreneurship around the globe.

From day one, the Trump administration has been committed to empowering women. Women’s empowerment is not only a basic fulfilment of human rights, but a strategic investment in our collective future. Women and girls must have the tools they need to succeed and the pathways that they seek opened. That includes a safe environment that promotes their health and also their education.

Whether at home or abroad, expanding opportunities for women and girls is a priority of this President for this administration. And today I’m honored to introduce someone who plays a central role in this critical initiative.

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 for the American Red Cross. She helped launch the National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April of 2008 and has been a champion for the American Heart Association.

Her deep concern for issues affecting children continues. As First Lady she is focused on the challenges of what children are exposed to online through technology. And as a mom whose children are always trying to sneak her electronic devices, I thank you for your work on that. (Laughter.) A lot of us can relate to that.

Mrs. Trump works tirelessly to raise awareness of the damaging effects of opioids and the harmful effects that drugs can have on pregnant women, particularly on newborns who develop neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. Mrs. Trump, the State Department has watched with a great deal of pride as you visited hospitals and women’s groups around the country to draw attention to this. Thank you for that.

Mrs. Trump is a powerful voice promoting women’s equality and improving the lives of women and girls around the world. Now please join me in welcoming the First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Melania Trump. (Applause.)

(The First Lady gives remarks.)

MS NAUERT: Thank you, Mrs. Trump. Thanks to all of you. As Mrs. Trump just discussed, courage takes many, many forms. This year, we are honored to recognize 10 extraordinary women who have dedicated and demonstrated not only courage and leadership, but a deep resolve to fight for what they believe in day in and day out. I’d like to introduce you to these women.

First, we have Roya Sadat. She’s from Afghanistan. She is a writer, a producer, a film director. Ms. Sadat, she’s over here. She is being honored for refusing to be silenced in her home country. She uses the arts to raise awareness of the brutal challenges facing women and girls, and despite threats to herself, her cast, and her crew, she’s served as a pioneer for Afghanistan’s cultural reawakening. In fact, she wrote her film, “Three Dots,” while keeping it a secret from the Taliban, and many of you will recall that entertainment was not allowed – music, films, all of that was not allowed under the Taliban. Congratulations to you. Thank you for your bravery. (Applause.)

And next, from Honduras, we have Dr. Julissa Villanueva. She is the director of forensic medicine at the Honduras political – excuse me, public ministry. Dr. Villanueva is being honored for tackling pervasive violence against women, changing the face of criminal accountability through the use of scientific evidence, and facing down gang violence in the struggle to bring justice. Welcome and thank you. (Applause.)

And next I’d like to introduce you to Aliyah Khalaf Saleh. She’s from Iraq. A humanitarian volunteer working to resist sectarian and radical ideology, Ms. Saleh is being honored for her bravery, her heroism, and her compassion in the wake of ISIS terror. She selflessly risked her own life to save others. In fact, she is credited with rescuing 58 young Iraqi military cadets who were ambushed by ISIS back in 2014. Imagine the bravery that takes for a woman in that country. It’s really incredible. She risked her own life to save others, and working with all Iraqi communities as well as security forces. Congratulations. (Applause.)

Such tremendous bravery in this room.

Next I’d like to introduce you to Sister Maria Elena Berini. She’s from Italy. She’s a Sister of Charity of Saint (inaudible) Antide Thouret. She was born in Italy but works at a Catholic mission in the Central African Republic. Sister Maria Elena is being honored for her service to counter hatred, injustice, and war-related horrors. She has provided refuge to those internally displaced people by conflict; and her tireless work to bring peace in the Central African Republic. Thank you, Sister. (Applause.)

And next I’d like to introduce you to Aiman Umarova. She’s from Kazakhstan. She is a lawyer, a human rights defender, a promoter of justice and other reforms. Ms. Umarova is being honored for improving laws to address violence against women and children, delivering justice in a number of landmark cases for rape victims, and her efforts in countering violent extremism despite the grave risks that she faces in Kazakhstan. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

Dr. Feride Rushiti is from Kosovo. She’s the founder and executive director of the Kosovo Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims. Dr. Rushiti is being honored for decades of advocacy on behalf of civilian victims of Kosovo’s war, including rape survivors, and she’s laid the groundwork for a legislative victory to support survivors of wartime sexual violence. Thank you, Doctor. (Applause.)

To Mauritania now. I would like to introduce you to L’Malouma Said from Mauritania. She’s a former slave and now a deputy member of parliament in Mauritania’s National Assembly. That is incredible. (Applause.) Mrs. Said is being honored – wait here, Mrs. Said. (Laughter.) You can stay here. We’re not done yet. Stay right there. Thank you. Mrs. Said is being honored for her relentless activism in the fight against slavery, including work in the country’s most effective anti-slavery organization; perseverance and promotion of human rights and equality; and resolve in addressing a failing prison system in Mauritania. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

Godelive Mukasarasi is from Rwanda. She’s the founder and coordinator of an NGO dedicated to helping widows and orphans of the Rwandan genocide, and she is herself a survivor of that trauma. She is being honored for her instrumental role in bringing women’s voices to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, leading to the first historic conviction of rape as a war crime. Thank you, ma’am, for your courage. (Applause.)

Next, Sirikan Charoensiri is from Thailand. She is a lawyer and human rights defender and is being honored for fiercely standing up for human rights. She includes – this includes the rights to peaceful assembly and expression. During Thailand’s military rule, she co-founded an organization to provide pro bono legal services to those who are facing politically motivated charges and overcoming unprecedented harassment and persecution. As a result of her advocacy, she now faces three sets of criminal charges for her work as a lawyer, and those charges include sedition. What a brave woman. Thank you. (Applause.)

And next to Guatemala. Aura Elena Farfan in a human rights activist and an advocate for families of the forcibly disappeared during Guatemala’s civil war in the 1960s and subsequent conflicts. Ms. Farfan is being honored for her 33 years of fearless leadership and enabling the prosecution of former military officers involved in extrajudicial killings. She has been an activist since her brother disappeared back in 1984. Since then, she’s received death threats, and has even been kidnapped by armed assailants in her country. We recognize Ms. Farfan in absentia today, as she is not able to travel to Washington from Guatemala due to a current medical condition that she suffers.

So please join me in thanking these women, welcoming these women to the United States, and I would like to introduce you to our next speaker. Please join me in giving a round of applause for this remarkable group of leaders, and it is my pleasure to introduce one of our women of courage, who will give remarks on behalf of the group, Godelive Mukasarasi from Rwanda. Thank you. (Applause.)

MS MUKASARASI: Mrs. Trump, Acting Under Secretary Nauert, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honor for me to stand here to tell you my joy and my gratitude for this acknowledgement of my work in Rwanda. As a committed activist, I have been fighting for the rights of women, victims of rape, and their children born of such rapes during the genocide against the Tutsis in 1993 and ’94. Through an extensive therapy process to help heal them of their trauma and through active advocacy, the rape victims have become models of self-development and resilient citizens.

During the genocide, one million innocent lives were lost and millions of survivors were affected by the trauma, left with physical and emotional wounds. Rape has been used as a war weapon. Tutsi women and girls raped, raped en masse, and some of them became pregnant or by the militia and soldiers of the former regime. A number of these women were infected with HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. Some underwent genital mutilation.

Others were forced to marry the perpetrators as a price to escape death, therefore becoming sexual servants and captives. When the militias were defeated, the women returned to their families but were rejected and stigmatized by relatives for having been the spouse of a militia member or for being pregnant by them. They were told to abort or to walk away with their cursed pregnancy. Some of these women decided to abort or they have left their families to hide far away, protecting those babies who today are beautiful 24 year-old women and the men.

Even too, the Government of Rwanda has done everything to address the effect of the genocide, the cases of rape were kept silent, because speaking of sexual issues is taboo in Rwanda culture.

Breaking the silence of this crime, I started the SEVOTA organization in Taba in December 1994.

Before meeting SEVOTA organization, every woman thought she was alone and would remain humiliated. But when sharing their stories, they find out that they could decided to accept themselves and accept their children.

After experiencing the SEVOTA healing session and receiving assistance, these Rwandan women decide to speak out against the rape and stood up to testify about them in the international criminal court of Rwanda.

These women – these women’s advocacy persuaded the international community make rape punishable as a crime against humanity.

These resilient women and young people are fully integrated in the community, undertaking income-producing activities, sustaining themselves, and preventing renewed trauma.

However, there is the need for more attention, as many of them are living with post-traumatic effects such as HIV/AIDS, poverty, and a fragilized and wounded memory.

This is why SEVOTA continues to advocate, to heal, and to participate in self-development program using different channel – different channel, such as the recent film “The Uncondemned,” where Seraphine, Victoria, and Cecile played a key role in speaking out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to express my profound gratitude toward those who have encouraged me, including the Government of Rwanda, which appoint me as one of the guardians of the social pacts, and the institution who have selected me for this prize.

Finally, I would like to extend many thank you who have attended this ceremony, and most of all, my sincerest thanks to First Lady Mrs. Melania Trump, Acting Under Secretary Nauert, the Secretary Office for Global Women’s Issues, and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Thank you. (Applause.)

MS NAUERT: Thank you. Godelive, thank you so much. Please join me in a final round of applause for this remarkable group of women leaders. (Applause.)

The United States will continue to work the advance – the rights of women and girls globally, well aware that when women do better, countries do better, families do better, we all do better. Mrs. Trump, thank you for your inspiring words and for being part of today’s ceremony and our ceremony last year as well. This is certainly your passion, and we are so grateful to have you. (Applause.)

To the 2018 International Women of Courage awardees, thank you for all that you have done and all that you continue to do. Thank you for your bravery, for your commitment, especially in the face of adversity. We honor you and your work.

At this time, I’d like to ask the First Lady and the 2018 International Women of Courage Award recipients to please stand for a group photo together, and we’ll get a picture together, and then we’ll conclude our ceremonies.

Ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated while the First Lady and the 2018 International Women of Courage Awardees then depart. Let’s take a picture first.

(The picture is taken.)

Please remain seated while the First Lady and the 2018 International Women of Courage awardees depart. Thank you, ladies. (Applause.) And thanks to all of you for coming today. (Applause.)

For those of us who are joining us in our reception, you are now invited to proceed to the Ben Franklin room, and that is on the eighth floor. Thank you, everyone. Thank you, our First Lady, and thank you to these wonderful ladies. Thank you. (Applause.)