First lady Laura Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton joined other female leaders of business and politics at a ceremony to honor women who have distinguished themselves with their courage and leadership. Among the honorees are the women of Burma and four individuals from around the world. VOA's Barry Newhouse has this report from the "Vital Voices" Global Leaders Award Ceremony in Washington. The honorees included a pro-democracy activist in Argentina, a young proponent for women's education in Kenya, a critic of Burma's military government and the first female government minister in the United Arab Emirates.
Senator Clinton said all of the honorees are working to ensure the rights of citizenship are available to all people.
"They are leading us toward that brighter future, a future in which the voices of women are heard and their talents and contributions are recognized and respected," she said.
Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi traded in her career as a business executive in information technology companies to become the head of the UAE's Ministry of Foreign Trade. As the first female finance minister in the Middle East, she says she hopes her award will work to improve the dialogue between Western nations and the Middle East.
Charm Tong, a woman who has worked as an advocate for Burmese refugees since she was 16 years old, accepted the 2008 Human Rights Award on behalf of the women of Burma. She co-founded the Shan Women's Action Network, which is based in Thailand and documents rapes and other abuses by Burma's military government against women and girls.
"For us - for the women of Burma - this award means a lot to us," said Tong. "Because every statement, every single action, every award like this, makes sure it's also a message of solidarity that the world has not given up on our hope for a future democratic and free Burma."
Other award recipients included Kakenya Ntaiya, a young Kenyan woman, who negotiated with her father and agreed to undergo female circumcision, if he allowed her to go to school. She later won a scholarship to attend university in the United States and is now finishing her doctorate in education at the University of Pittsburgh. She plans to start a boarding school for girls in her Maasai village in Kenya.
Vital Voices is a non-governmental organization that trains emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs. Since 1997, the group has mentored more than 5,000 women leaders from 150, countries who later returned home to train more than 100,000 additional women in their communities.