Women leaders recognized at Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards

Hillary Rodham Clinton presents the Global Trailblazer Award to Syrian human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, kidnapped in December of 2013. Photo by: Sharon Farmer

Vital Voices hosted its 13th annual Global Leadership Awards Tuesday night in Washington, D.C. to honor women from around the world “leading the way on the great unfinished business of the 21st century: advancing the rights, opportunities and full participation of women and girls everywhere,” said former Secretary of State and Vital Voices founder Hillary Clinton.

“From a prosecutor who battled corruption and violence against women in Guatemala…who empowers other women to lift themselves out of poverty in Tanzania. The women you have honored tonight have faced hard choices in their own lives,” Clinton said.

This year, Vital Voices recognized Razan Zaitouneh, a determined — and now disappeared — woman who created Syria’s first human rights information bank at 27, with the 2014 Global Trailblazer Award.

Zaitouneh was kidnapped in December, 2013 while working in Syria as a result of her commitment to advocating for human rights and empowering women.

"Her vital voice is silent now, even as her country continues to burn," an impassioned Clinton said. "So tonight, let us all speak for her. Let us raise our voices as one and demand the safe and immediate release of Razan Zaitouneh and all of the political prisoners in Syria as this conflict continues. We will not forget her.”

Her sister, Rana Zaitouneh, accepted the award on her behalf.

They shared a dream to find freedom, Zaitouneh said, but these past few years she felt a mixture of guilt and pride, “guilt because I chose flight … pride for my little sister who stayed and chose to fight the oppression.”

Women’s rights are human rights, and empowering women also makes economic sense. For this reason, Victoria Kisyombe of Tanzania was honored with the Economic Empowerment Award for founding Sero Lease and Finance Limited, or Selfina, a leasing and loaning business inspired by her own cow, Sero.

By selling her cow’s milk, she was able to lift herself out of poverty; in the process, she realized that other women without collateral needed help securing a similar asset. She has now helped approximately 25,000 women throughout Tanzania excluded from the formal financial sector to access an asset through this leasing program.

There are many more women working to strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity and protect human rights around the world.

The evening’s honorees also included Priti Patkar of India with the Human Rights Award for her 28-year dedication to providing security for children of sex workers in India; Claudia Paz y Paz of Guatemala with the Leadership in Public Life Award for her bravery in the prosecution of organized crime and political corruption in her country; and Suaad Allami, who opened Iraq’s first all-female legal clinic, with the Fern Holland Award, in honor of Fern Holland, an American lawyer killed in Iraq.

“These are the kinds of stories we need to hear, and repeat, again and again,” Clinton said. “That’s why we formed Vital Voices in the first place.”

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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