Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama led State Department ceremonies on Wednesday, honoring 10 women's rights activists from around the world as International Women of Courage. The event was among Washington observances of International Women's Day and came on the eve of the release of the State Department's annual report on human rights conditions around the world.
Secretary Clinton said honoring the women rights activists in such a public way sends a clear message that although they might work in lonely circumstances, they are not alone and that the United States stands with them.
"We will be watching your progress, listening for news of your successes, struggles and, above all, your safety," she said. "We send a message to all governments that might not be thrilled that you're here, that we will be watching them as well. And we thank you for everything you are doing and will do."
Clinton's remarks were an implied warning against political reprisals against the awardees, among them women activists from Iran, Syria and Zimbabwe.
The group also included two women from Afghanistan and one each from Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka, Kenya and South Korea.
Among those in the audience were girls from Washington area schools and first lady Michelle Obama exhorted them to follow the awardees' example and refuse to stand idly by when they encounter injustice or hardship.
"If these women can endure relentless threats, brutal violence and separation from their families as they fight for their causes, then surely you all can keep going when you face struggles and obstacles in your own lives," she said.
Speaking on behalf of the recipients was Zimbabwe human rights monitor Justine Mukoko, who was among activists abducted and held by state security agents for reporting on rights abuses after the country's flawed elections in 2008.
Mukoko, head of the non-governmental Zimbabwe Peace Project, said the prestigious U.S. award lends encouragement to all women's rights advocates.
"The award beckons us to stand tall and refuse to be intimidate and harassed, as these are tactics to remove us from the focus of our objective," she said. "We do not want to be passive bystanders. And it is such recognition that ensures that we will not tire until we reach the finish line, and pass the baton to the next generation - the girls who are among us."
Of the 10 awardees, only those from Cyprus and Iran were not present at the event.
The Iranian winner, Shadi Sadr, led a campaign in the country's courts against the Islamic punishment of death by stoning against women for adultery and other offenses. After multiple arrests, she left Iran and now lives in Germany.
In addition to Sadr and Mukoko, the other awardees are Shukria Asil and Shafiqa Quraishi of Afghanistan, Androula Henriques of Cyprus, Sonia Pierre of the Dominican Republic, Ann Njogu of Kenya, Lee Ae-ran of South Korea, Jansila Majeed of Sri Lanka and Marie Claude Naddaf of Syria.