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US Honors Women's Rights Activists


The U.S. State Department Wednesday honored 10 women from eight countries around the world for courage and leadership in campaigning for women's rights and advancement. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presided at the event on the eve of International Women's Day. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The 10 recipients of the State Department's new International Women of Courage Award were chosen from among 80 women nominated by U.S. embassies around the world for rights activism in their home countries.

At a State Department event at which nine of the 10 women were present, Secretary Rice called the recipients pioneers and defenders of the non-negotiable demand of human dignity.

Rice, the second woman to hold the top U.S. diplomatic post after Madeleine Albright of the Clinton administration, pledged continued efforts by the United States to combat the dehumanization of women in every form:

"We will not accept that women and girls are sold into modern-day slavery," said Condoleezza Rice. "We will not accept that women and girls are denied an education. We will not accept so-called honor killings, and will do everything we can to end forced early marriages. And we will work to improve healthcare opportunities for all women so they can help to build a more helpful future for themselves and their children."

The honorees included two women from Iraq and Afghanistan, and one each from Argentina, Indonesia, Latvia, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.

U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky presented the awards, saying that most of those cited had braved intimidation and threats for their work of behalf of their countries' women.

Among them, Dobriansky said, is Zimbabwe's Jennifer Louise Williams, founder and leader of the activist group WOZA, or Women of Zimbabwe Arise:

"Ms. Williams has suffered arrest, harassment and physical abuse," said Paula Dobriansky. "By uniting women in Zimbabwe of all races and ethnic backgrounds to advocate for issues affecting them, she has brought social, economic and political issues to national attention. Ms. Williams and WOZA lead annual peaceful marches on Valentine's Day and Mothers Day to promote peace and development. The government of Zimbabwe has responded with mass arrests, but the women remain undeterred."

The two Iraqi women honored, including a member of parliament from an Islamic party, are both prominent advocates for a greater role for women in the war-torn country's political life.

The event here came as a New York-based international women's advocacy group, MADRE, issued a report saying that violence and discrimination against Iraqi women has increased greatly since U.S.-led forces ousted the secular government of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The report, also timed for International Women's Day, accused American officials in Iraq of compromising the U.S. commitment to women's rights in efforts to win the cooperation of Iraqi Islamist factions.

The group said women faced systematic attacks, including politically-motivated rapes, from militias on both sides of Iraq's Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian divide.

But it said the most widespread violence has been by Shi'ite militias affiliated with main factions of the U.S.-backed coalition government, notably the Badr Brigade and Mahdi Army.

A State Department spokeswoman declined specific comment on the MADRE report, but said U.S. diplomats in Iraq have worked hard for women's empowerment including a successful drive for constitutional language setting a 25 percent benchmark for female representation in the Iraqi parliament.