An official website of the United States government

Secretary Michael R. Pompeo At the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards Ceremony
March 5, 2020

Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards Ceremony


AMBASSADOR CURRIE: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Department of State. Excellencies, distinguished guests and colleagues, my name is Kelley Currie. I am proud to be the ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues here at the department.

It’s my honor to welcome you here this morning in advance of International Women’s Day, which we mark every year by recognizing a remarkable group of women who exemplify exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk.

And now, please welcome to the stage our 2020 International Women of Courage awardees. Thank you. (Applause.)

This is one of the most amazing events that we do every year here at the State Department. It’s like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one for us. Our office is so proud to be involved in this event and to be – and to work with our colleagues from across the world to select a remarkable group of women who are a truly inspirational force. We have now recognized more than 140 women from around the world in this honor – with this honor.

So it is now my great pleasure to welcome the First Lady of the United States, Ms. Melania Trump, and the Secretary of State of the United States, Mr. Michael R. Pompeo. (Applause.)

SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, welcome, everyone. I want to thank Ambassador Currie for your leadership in the Office of Global Women’s Issues here at the State Department, for helping us to execute President Trump’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative.

Thank you, Madam First Lady, for joining us here today. Your presence here shines a brighter light on our honorees and gives tremendous lift to our collective effort to encourage, support, and honor women all around the globe who are doing good things.

We’re here today to meet and congratulate the women who are on stage with us, the 2020 International Women of Courage Award winners. It’s my honor to host all of you here, and to be with you. Thank you for joining us.

Last month, I took my first trip as Secretary of State to sub-Saharan Africa. Susan joined me on the trip. We visited Senegal, Angola, and Ethiopia. In each country, we had a real privilege and an opportunity to meet with women who were launching businesses and community initiatives within their countries that were aimed at addressing challenges that the people of their nation face, challenges such as global instability, sporadic internet service, lacking a skilled workforce.

One young woman in Ethiopia shared how her enthusiasm for her fledgling business’s growth was dashed. It was proving nearly impossible for her to find land and a structure to relocate her manufacturing operation, things that included basics like electricity and water, things that we take for granted in other places in the world.

She persevered and now employs 40 people, exports artisanal products all across Europe.

Another young woman taught herself to code – at the age of nine – by watching YouTube videos. Today, she’s a partner at an investment firm, helping to empower and train entrepreneurs all across the world. Look, she’s clearly intellectually gifted, but her successful start meant that she had to also aggressively pursue her own path forward.

We also had the opportunity when we were in Riyadh to meet with women business leaders. These are women in business, they are starting businesses, and they are involved in their community in amazing new ways.

And they’re doing this all the while advocating and implementing fundamental changes to their societies. Women are integrating into the workforce and holding positions that were not imaginable even a few years ago. Women are driving. Women are attending leisure-time events. And this change has come swiftly.

When we asked one of the businesswomen how the men in her family were responding to these changes, she said, “It’s great! My brother told me he was sick of driving me around!” (Laughter.)

They all are rooting for great things; we’re rooting for great things. We know these women will accomplish them.

Look, these are – these are a series of stories that have plain truths contained within them. First, that women are enjoying the freedom of trying, failing, and succeeding in greater numbers in many, many corners of the world. Second, women want to be less of a “discussion issue” or a “trend” and instead want more real opportunities to lead businesses and to be involved in their communities as leaders.

And finally, the world needs women who continue to be willing to take risks and summon courage. And unquestionably, today’s awardees are doing just that.

This morning, you’re going to get to meet some amazing people – attorneys protecting basic rights in difficult places, journalists exposing corruption, activists ending the horror of female genital mutilation. We will also meet fighters for religious freedom and peacemakers in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

The women up here are all different, no two the same, but they share a deep belief in the fundamentally – fundamental dignity of every human being.

Amina Khoulani is a survivor of the Assad regime’s torture campaign. She was imprisoned for six months in Syria for the simple act of being engaged in “peaceful activism.” Forced from her home and then her country, living under constant threat as a refugee, she continues to actively be engaged in advocating for human rights, for democracy, and for peace in her country.

Today – (applause) – today we also honor Sayragul Sauytbay. Formerly a medical doctor, she was separated from her family, tortured, imprisoned, and faced execution because of her courage to simply speak the truth. She was one of the first victims to speak publicly about the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of Muslim minorities.

She bravely provided accounts of Xinjiang’s internment camps, and continues to inspire other former detainees and family members to come forward and tell their stories to the world. (Applause.)

These two women and 10 others on this stage are faces of courage who humble and inspire us all. Now, not all women go through the same hardships we’ll hear about this morning but my wife, Susan, and I – Susan is with me here this morning – she reminds me of the courageous women that we all know. They’re our neighbors, they’re our friends, they’re our colleagues.

Every time I talk about this, Susan reminds me of the fact that my grandma, Grace, who grew up helping her dad tend cattle and doing farm chores in Beloit, Kansas, married my grandpa on October 14th, 1914, at 6:30 a.m. in the morning because he wanted to be at work on time. (Laughter.) I did not pull that stunt on Susan. (Laughter.)

Grandma Grace cooked, she did laundry, she tended a huge garden, she was the PTA president four times, she led multiple Girl Scout troops, she was a precinct committeewoman, she made almost all of her children’s clothing, and when grandpa won his campaign for sheriff, she worried. She took a paying job so that the kids were all able to go to school and have clothes, and began taking care of many of her grandchildren before all 10 kids were out of the house.

And during World War II, she and grandpa took airmen into the home who were working at a nearby airstrip. She did all this and more with no heat, no plumbing – no indoor plumbing, not much money – undoubtedly, there were days she thought she couldn’t put one foot in front of the other.

This kind of courage is exemplified in families all across the world by women who are leading and who are taking on difficult challenges. We all know women like this, women who overcome adversity each day, who have faced fears and confronted wrongs.

We need to honor these women every day, women of courage that are on this stage, and all of the women around the world who are engaged in this excellent activity that is so important for our families, for our governments, and for our world. (Applause.)

And now – now I want you to meet someone who isn’t an “everyday” woman but rather someone that is known in all corners of the world. The first event she hosted at the White House after her husband’s inauguration was for International Women’s Day. She traveled solo to four countries in Africa meeting with children and families. Two years ago, she launched the Be Best awareness campaign – an effort to support the wellbeing of our youth. She represents our country with enormous warmth and elegance and grace to hundreds of world leaders abroad and at the White House. We’ve seen her at the President’s side consoling Americans at times of tremendous loss and tragedy. We’ve spotted her on the tarmac at 2 a.m. to welcome home returning American hostages, and we’ve seen her face light up when she’s hugging children around the world and here at home. And while I’m guessing that she is happiest being called Barron’s mom, please join me in welcoming the First Lady of the United States of America Melania Trump. (Applause.)

(The First Lady gives remarks.)

AMBASSADOR CURRIE: Thank you to Secretary Pompeo and First Lady Melania Trump for their wonderful remarks. We will now move on to the awards portion of the ceremony. The Secretary and First Lady will present the award to each of the women as I call their name and read a brief overview of their impressive accomplishments. We would appreciate if you could hold your applause until I finish reading the citation for each individual.

Zarifa Ghafari of Afghanistan. After successfully launching and operating a women-focused radio station, Zarifa became the first mayor of Maidan Shahr in conservative Wardak Province in Afghanistan and – at the age of 26. She is being honored for defying death threats and showing that a woman can lead even in conservative and conflict-affected Afghanistan and for inspiring women and girls across the country. Zarifa, please join – the Secretary and First Lady. Thank you. (Applause.)

Lucy Kocharyan of Armenia. As a dedicated journalist, Lucy is being honored for raising awareness and leading a movement against gender-based violence, championing the rights of children with mental health issues, and emerging as a leading voice fighting discrimination against women and children. Lucy, please join the Secretary and the First Lady. (Applause.)

Shahla Humbatova of Azerbaijan. A dedicated human rights lawyer, Shahla is being honored for her work defending fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan, including for marginalized groups, and being a strong advocate for her clients in politically sensitive cases despite significant personal and professional risk. (Applause.)

Ximena Galarza of Bolivia. A journalist with over 25 years of experience, Ximena risked her career and her freedom to expose election fraud. She is being honored for her work to support democracy and expose corruption, electoral fraud, and violations of democratic freedoms in her country. (Applause.)

Claire Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso. Claire is the president of Songmanegre Association for Women’s Development. She is being honored for her visionary efforts and leadership to promote positive solutions to eliminate female genital mutilation and cutting, and her role in empowering women in rural areas, even as Burkina Faso has descended into a state of ongoing insecurity. (Applause.)

Sayragul Sauytbay. Born in the Ele Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture of Xinjiang, and now living in Sweden, Sayragul is being honored for her bravery in standing up against the oppression of the Chinese Communist regime and not backing down from her commitment to others. Sayragul became one of the first victims in the world to speak publicly about the repressive campaign against Muslims and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and her testimony was among the first evidence to reach and spark an international response. (Applause.)

Susanna Liew of Malaysia. Susanna is being honored for her selfless dedication to fight on behalf of members of religious minorities who have disappeared in Malaysia or face persecution for their beliefs. She has endured police harassment and death threats, but has never stopped actively pursuing justice, including on behalf of her husband Christian pastor Raymond Koh, who was abducted in 2017. (Applause.)

Amaya Coppens of Nicaragua. Amaya is one of the leaders of the 19th of April student movement in Nicaragua. She was abducted by Nicaraguan police from her residence after participating in a peaceful protest. We honor her today for her strength and tenacity in standing up for justice and against the Sandinista government and the violent repressive tactics of its security forces, as well of her acts of kindness and generosity on behalf of mothers of political prisoners who were on hunger strike. (Applause.)

Jalila Haider of Pakistan. Knows and the “iron lady of Balochistan,” Jalila is a human rights attorney who is being honored for not only strengthening opportunities for women and children, but also for taking up the cause of other vulnerable communities in Pakistan. (Applause.)

Amina Khoulani of Syria. A survivor of the Assad regime’s detention and torture centers, Amina is being honored for her fearless dedication to helping the families of forcibly disappeared Syrians and is a founder member of Families for Freedom, a women-led organization launched in 2017 by families whose loved ones have been detained and disappeared in Syria. (Applause.)

Yasmin al Qadhi of Yemen. Yasmin is being honored for her work fostering support for women displaced by conflict and to change social norms to empower women’s meaningful participation in civil society and the UN-led peace process in Yemen. She and her sister established the Marib Girls Foundation in 2017, which advances efforts to combat the recruitment of child soldiers and fosters support for women displaced by the ongoing conflict in Yemen. (Applause.)

Dr. Rita Nyampinga of Zimbabwe. A steadfast human rights defender and activist, Rita is being honored for her protection of and respect for the rights of prisoners, especially women in detention, and for fighting for a fair and just legal system in Zimbabwe. (Applause.)

Please join me in, again, congratulating all of our award winners today. (Applause.)

I would now like to invite Zarifa Ghafari of Afghanistan to the lectern to deliver brief remarks on behalf of our group of awardees.

MS GHAFARI: Madame First Lady, Dear Ms. Trump, Dear Mr. Secretary Pompeo, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. Dear citizens of United States of America and the world, dear brave women of Afghanistan and brave women of the world, wherever you are fighting for the rights of women at this very (inaudible) time.

It’s truly an honor to be with you today. And the presence of so many amazing women leaders from Bolivia to Burkina Faso and from Syria to Malaysia. Before I even begin, I want to thank everyone around the world who have fought for women’s empowerment. It was not so long ago that most women were considered property, and sadly, in some part of the world, it is still the same.

Throughout the modern era, there has been one global leader in the fight for women’s rights, and that’s the United States of America. To the American people, to the American Government, let me say thank you. Thank you for all of – you have done to improve conditions for women around the world. Thank you for the honor to speak to you today on behalf of my fellow awardees.

It’s humbling to be honored today alongside heroes like Amina Khoulani, Rita Nyampinga, and Amaya Coppens, who who were imprisoned for their activism; heroes like Lucy Kocharyan, and who launched a movement against sexual harassment in Armenia; heroes like Jalila Haider, who despite threats has worked tirelessly to protect ethnic minorities in Pakistan.

My name is Zarifa Ghafari. Actually, I am not a hero. I am just the mayor of Maidan Shahr, a city in southern side of capital. It’s a conservative place, a place where men aren’t used to seeing women in position of authority, a place where some men resist women in authority. When I start – I started my job, the men at the municipal office refused to acknowledge me and my authority. A mob came and chased me away. They thought that was the end of that, but I came back. I came back and I stood my ground. (Applause.)

A few years ago I would not have expected that they would ever hear me and my advice. Now I am even listened and to be treated with full of respect. In the news, the women of Afghanistan are often seen as victims and it is true that women have been bearing the brunt of war. But we have other stories to tell about women who fought and fighting for their rights and do not give up. Like, example, in the 1920s, Soraya Tarzi became the queen consort of Afghanistan. It was about the time when women here in the United States achieved an amendment of the Constitution that granted them the right to vote. Soraya campaigned for women’s rights and education.

I have no nostalgia for monarchy, but Soraya was a role model. I think of her whenever I am frustrated and when people tell me, “Give up, Zarifa. Leave this office. Stay at home. Take care of your family matters.” Whatever we woman of world may have already achieved, let us not take it for granted. It could be taken back from if we are not vigilant and strong.

When I walk around in Wardak Province, I know that other girls and women look at me and definitely will say, “I am smart. Why I can’t do whatever Zarifa is doing?” I’m sure they will definitely say.

I would like to thank the United States of America and the Afghan Government, especially respected President Dr. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and his wife, respected Ms. Rula Ghani, for standing with our women and for taking women empowerment seriously. It can contribute to peace and stability.

Women of my generation have not forgotten the reign of the Taliban, and we are as always worried for the future. Therefore, let me ask for your continued support to ensure that Afghan peace process does not erase the gains that have been made since the dark days of the Taliban regime. (Applause.)

Good luck, love, and respect to all of you. Remember us, and God bless you all. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR CURRIE: I have the best job. (Laughter.)

MS GHAFARI: Thank you. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR CURRIE: Zarifa, thank you. As I’ve gotten to know these women, I just – I – every day this week I’m just in awe of them. They really – they keep us going here in our office, and so I really thank you for delivering those courageous remarks on behalf of our group of awardees this year. I hope that we’ll all take those words as a call to action to redouble our own efforts to promote women’s empowerment around the world.

Now I would like to invite my wonderful colleague, Assistant Secretary Marie Royce, to the lectern. (Applause.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROYCE: Good morning, esteemed guests. Thank you, Mrs. Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and Ambassador Currie, for your leadership and support of the International Women of Courage. On behalf of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, or ECA, I have the great pleasure of joining you to celebrate this year’s remarkable awardees. The International Women of Courage not only receive this prestigious award, but they also participate in an ECA exchange program called the International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. After this week in Washington, the awardees will travel across the United States to meet with their American counterparts. At ECA, we move people to move ideas. From Jackson, Mississippi to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to my hometown of Los Angeles, California, these outstanding women of courage will engage with Americans to move ideas and develop innovative solutions to our shared global challenges.

I’d like to share a story regarding alumna Malebogo Molefhe of Botswana. A rising professional basketball player, Malebogo became a wheelchair user after a brutal attack. She has since dedicated her life to advocating for survivors of gender-based violence. During her IVLP, she traveled to Denver, Colorado, where she met with local lawmakers and the police department, and they discussed state and federal laws protecting victims of gender-based violence. Inspired by her IVLP, Malebogo continues her work in Botswana, where she now works with her government to strengthen laws that protect other victims. And this is just one story of how ECA empowers women both in the United States and also abroad.

Now to the awardees: As you prepare to travel to 14 cities in all regions across the United States, know that the people of the United States, American people, share your vision for positive change. We support your continued efforts. And after you return to your countries, you will be a member of a global network of over 2 million ECA alumni who have participated – yes, thank you – (applause) – 2 million ECA alumni who have participated in our exchange programs and support you. Congratulations again to each of you.

And now, I’d like to invite the participants, the awardees, to take a class photo with Secretary Pompeo and Mrs. Trump. Thank you. (Applause.)