Profiles: 2013 International Women of Courage Awardees Highlight Ways that Women Impact Peace and Security
By Jane Mosbacher Morris
On March 8th, Secretary of State John Kerry and First Lady Michelle Obama presented one of few accolades that recognizes major contributors to women, peace, and security—the International Women of Courage Awards (IWC). All nine deserving recipients had a unique and compelling backstory replete with moments of great loss, accomplishment, and, of course, perseverance.
Awardee Malalai Bahaduri of Afghanistan currently serves as a Senior Instructor in the Afghan National Interdiction Unit (NIU). Bahaduri chose to pursue a career in law enforcement shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002, a decision that so angered her uncle that he broke her nose. The then-mother of three refused to allow skeptics within her family and community to dissuade her, however, and went on to become the first female member of the NIU.
Sadly, her uncle’s reaction is not uncommon in Afghanistan, as many women seeking to serve in the security sector face intense discrimination, despite risking their lives to protect the same people that threaten them. I, women serving in law enforcement or in the military can help to generate trust and more effusive lines of communication between the security organization and target segments in the population, such as other women and children. Despite the unique benefits that women can bring, Bahaduri represents one of few women who are brave enough to take on a formal role in the security sector.
Like Bahaduri, Dr. Josephine Obiajulu Odumakin and Ms. Fartiim Adam, two civil society leaders from Nigeria and Somalia, have also positioned themselves on the frontlines in order to advance peace in their communities. In Nigeria, Dr. Odumakin serves as President of the Campaign for Democracy, where she has advocated on behalf of over 2,000 women who have faced assault by Kenyan police; have suffered the loss of children to negligent hospital or school administrators; or have seen corrupt government officials extra-judicially kill their family members. Arrested and detained more than seventeen times, Dr. Odumakin refuses to relent and continues to champion for stability and justice in Kenya.
In nearby Somalia, Ms. Adan, Executive Director of Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, unwaveringly calls for education as an alternative to the ongoing conflict in Somalia, notwithstanding surviving horrors like the assassination of her husband. At the Elman Centre that she manages, Adan offers reintegration programming, like job trainings and placements, to former child soldiers. Ms. Adan has also given her life to fight for victims of sexual and gender-based violence, establishing Somalia’s first sexual violence hotline and rape crisis center.
Odumakin and Adan’s efforts illustrate the dangers of leading civil society organizations aimed at piecing together basic rule of law, not to mention the lives of so many of the victims that they serve. Obdumakin and Adan’s steadfast dedication to promoting human security can only be matched by other IWC awardees like Dr. Julieta Castellanos, who serves on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Honduras.
Dr. Castellanos has vocally campaigned against the drug cartels and the stronghold that they exercise over a justice sector awash with corruption. She has helped to mobilize over 400 civil society organizations in order to amplify their call for law enforcement reform and has even caught the attention of Honduras’s President . Sadly, she also caught the attention of several corrupt police, who murdered Castellanos’ 22 year-old son in 2011. Like other awardees, though, Dr. Castellanos carries on promoting peace and security regardless of the risks, claiming that she won’t stop, even if it costs her life .
While some women leverage the security, justice, or civil society sector to promote peace and security, other women choose to use the power of information. Three bloggers from Tibet, Syria, and Vietnam were among the 2013 IWAC awardees, but their seemingly innocuous form of expression does not come without significant personal consequences.
Tsering Woeser, the Tibetan poet, author, and blogger who has detailed human rights abuses against her people, has been under constant watch from China’s security agents and has been moved in and out of house arrest. To the South, Phong Tan, a Vietnamese blogger who has vocally criticized the Communist Party of Vietnam, is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence for “conducting propaganda against the state”. In the Middle East, Razan Zeitunah, a Syrian blogger who has reported on the atrocities that Syrian government officials have committed against their own citizens, has been in hiding from the Assad regime for almost two years.
None of these heroic women was able to travel to receive their prize. In spite of the extraordinary risks and repercussions that each have faced, all three women have made a concerted effort to shine a spotlight on the way that undemocratic governments can undermine basic peace and security within their own states. Without the strength of these women, the plight of their communities could go under-reported to the international community, allowing the bad actors to operate with further impunity.
Similarly, Russian journalist Elena Milashina received the 2013 IWC award for working tirelessly to expose the extrajudicial killings and kidnappings that erode the security of her country. Enduring physical and verbal attacks, including a steady stream of threats from people in the public and private sectors, Milashina has continued to be a staunch critic of a government that appears to be increasingly disinterested in peace and security abroad, let alone within its own borders.
Secretary Kerry and First Lady Obama presented the final award posthumously to the young woman whose tragic gang rape robbed her of her life and generated international press coverage of the pervasiveness of sexual assault around the world. Referred to at the ceremony as “Nirbhaya”, meaning fearless, this young woman fought long enough to stay alive in order to provide two police statements and to demand that action be taken against her six attackers. “Nirbhaya’s” heartbreaking suffering inspired mass protests in India that lead the Indian government to initiate preliminary reforms that could help to chip away at a judicial system unequipped to effectively counter sexual and gender-based violence.
These nine extraordinary women unquestionably deserve the honor bestowed upon them by the International Courage Awards, but they represent a tiny fraction of the women fighting to advance peace and security, often at the expense of their own lives. Whether in the security or judicial sectors, civil society, online, or as everyday citizens like “Nirbhaya”, women everywhere are carving out unique ways to contribute to peace and security, sometimes overtly, but often quietly. It becomes our job, then, to champion their efforts, calling attention to them, when safe to do so, and reminding the international community that the change-makers in these countries are not just sitting in government.
About the author:
Jane Mosbacher Morris is the Director of Humanitarian Action at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. She previously worked at the U.S. State Department on counterterrorism, as well as on women, peace, and security. She has a MBA from Columbia and a BSFS from Georgetown.
Biographical information about the awardees was taken from the Department of State International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony program, if not otherwise noted.