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Clinton: US to Push for Women’s Rights in New Mideast Democracies

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (L) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) honor Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva during the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony at the State Department, March 8, 2011
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (L) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) honor Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva during the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony at the State Department, March 8, 2011

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the United States will "stand firm" for women’s empowerment as new democracies take shape in the Middle East.   Clinton spoke at a State Department event honoring women from 10 countries for advocacy on women’s issues, including Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva.

Clinton used the event, part of the U.S. observance of International Women’s Day, to serve notice that the Obama administration will make women’s empowerment a policy priority in its dealings with emerging democracies in the Middle East.

"The women in Egypt and Tunisia and other nations have just as much right as the men to remake their governments, to make them responsive, accountable, transparent," she said.  "The United States will stand firmly for the proposition that women must be included in whatever process goes forward."

Clinton said no government can succeed if it excludes half of its people - its women - from important decisions.

The secretary of state, joined by first lady Michelle Obama, presided at the fifth annual Women of Courage awards ceremony, honoring activists around the world for advocating for women’s rights and empowerment.

This year, the 10 recipients include the first female head of state so honored, Kyrgyz Republic President Roza Otunbayeva, who Clinton said steered her country to democracy last year after the collapse of an autocratic regime.

"She decided early on she would help to set up a new government, have a new constitution," she said.  "And when the time came, after the elections were finished, she would turn over powers to the new prime minister and that government.  In so doing, she has offered an invaluable lesson to fledging democracies everywhere."

In an acceptance speech on behalf of all of the honorees, President Otunbayeva said the new Kyrgyz democracy - the first in the region - might appear chaotic, but that the apparent disarray is far more preferable to the order enforced by a dictator.

"Yes, when you are a dictatorship, it is very easy to create the artificial picture of stability and harmony," she said. "When you have a democracy, you must learn to accept many voices, some of them very critical, some even insulting. To  the outsiders,  it looks like you are about to collapse every minute."

Other awardees at the event included Afghan regional prosecutor Maria Bashir, journalist Henriette Ekwe Ebongo of Cameroon, Chinese lawyer Jianmei Guo, Hungarian parliamentarian Agnes Osztokyan, Jordanian legal advocate Eva Abu Halaweh, Pakistani rural women’s activist Ghulam Sughra and Mexican Deputy Attorney General Marisela Morales.

Belarusian youth organizer Nasta Palazhanka and Cuban Internet activist Yoani Sanchez were barred by their countries from attending.

But first lady Michelle Obama said the Cuban government has been powerless to prevent the dissemination of Sanchez’s online essays, and that this kind of courage is the common thread that connects all of the honorees.

"Each time these women speak up, they inspire others to use their own voices," she said.  "Their fearlessness inspires other to overcome their own fears.  And so soon, citizen networks emerge, eager for change.  Soon it’s possible to rewrite laws, to topple regimes, to transform peoples’ lives."

Obama said some of the woman activists might not see the fruits of their labors during their lifetimes, but that they carry on with the knowledge that they are paving the way for a better life for their daughters and their sons.

2011 International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony:

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