On March 8, the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award will honor Maryam Durani — the 8th woman from Afghanistan who will receive such an award.

The award recognizes women around the world who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating women’s rights amid adversity. It was established by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on International Women’s Day in 2007.

Most of the award’s honorees, past and present, come from Muslim countries and have experienced imprisonment and some form of violence. Some have received death threats and were condemned by their own families. Farhiyo Farah Ibrahim, a Somali refugee, was ostracized by her own family. She campaigned — and continues to — against female genital mutilation and forced marriages in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

There are also journalists who have faced harassment in the pursuit of exposing corruption. In 2000, Jineth Bedoya Lima, an investigative journalist at the Bogotá-based daily, El Espectador, was kidnapped, tortured and gang-raped by three men, who left her bound in a garbage dump. Her attackers told her to “pay attention” while raping her, saying they are sending a “message to the press in Colombia.” Today, she serves as spokeswoman of Oxfam’s campaign, “Rape and Other Violence: Take My Body Out of the War,” and continues to seek justice.

Susana Trimarco de Veron, meanwhile, has uncovered evidence of human trafficking networks operating in several provinces in Argentina while looking for her daughter — believed to be taken by human traffickers a block away from their home in San Miguel de Tucuman in 2002. She founded the Fundación María de los Angeles, the only organization in the country that gives comprehensive assistance to trafficking victims. As of April last year, however, she has not yet found her daughter.

There are those who were sold or forced to marry at a young age, but emerged triumphant in the end. Hadizatou Mani from Niger was sold to slavery at the age of 12 for $500. She was raped, beaten and forced to bear three children. When the country outlawed slavery in 2003, she fought for her freedom. The Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice decided in her favor and she was awarded $20,000. In 2009, she was featured in the annual Time 100 issue.

Ghulam Sughra of Pakistan faced the same fate. She was forced to marry at the age of 12, but divorced six years later — the first woman in her village to do so. Despite failing to attend school — as her own brothers would beat her — she became her village’s first female high school graduate and first teacher at the first school for girls. She was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999 and is CEO of Marvi Rural Development Organization, a nonprofit empowering rural women in Pakistan.

Women in politics have also received the award, such as former Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva, the first female head of state and government in a majority Muslim country, and Safak Pavey, the first physically challenged woman elected to the Turkish Parliament. Former political prisoner Zin Mar Aung, meanwhile, has dedicated her life to promoting democracy, women empowerment and conflict resolution in Burma following her 11 years imprisonment.

This year, the ceremony will be hosted by current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and will honor Durani, Lima, Aung, Pavey, Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo (Brazil), Hana Elhebshi (Libya), Aneesa Ahmed (Maldives), Shad Begum (Pakistan), Samar Badawi (Saudi Arabia) and Hawa Abdallah Mohammed Salih (Sudan). It will be attended by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and other U.S. and foreign dignitaries. The honorees will then travel to 10 different cities in the United States following the event, and will receive monetary grants from the American Women for International Understanding. AWIU partnered with the State Department in 2008 to support the program.

While these women have survived the hardships they went through, it is our wish that no woman has to go through the same ordeals in order to advance women’s rights and freedom today.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.