A half-century ago, John F. Kennedy was a young U.S. Senator, years away from becoming America's president. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the importance of standing up for what you believe is right. In "Profiles in Courage", he used the examples of eight Senators from throughout U.S. history who stood alone against great political and social pressure. Since 1989, a foundation established in his name has given the "John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award" to public officials who followed their consciences instead of public opinion or the desires of powerful interest groups.
Working for women's rights in Afghanistan under the Taleban could be deadly, but Dr. Sima Samar was undeterred. She risked her life to establish health clinics, hospitals, and schools for women and girls. She worked undercover to elude authorities, and, at one point, had to seek refuge at a United Nations office in her country.
"The situation was very dangerous," she says. "Nobody was interested in women's projects, education for girls especially. It was really difficult for me to start. I believe we should educate the women to know about their rights and have a better future to decide for themselves. That was the biggest challenge: the find money and to start such a project. Of course, I was always in danger for my life by the political parties. For them, this was not allowed. They don't believe in it. But I personally believe in education. It's a basic human right. We should try to make it possible for any children to have access to education."
Dr. Simar currently chairs the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president, and head of the Foundation, calls her 'a woman of extraordinary political courage and physical bravery.' "She has really led a life of courage that is extraordinary and sets a new standard for this award," she says. "It was an inspiration to all of us. And I think human rights around the world are under attack, and she has been a beacon of hope for so many."
Two American legislators were also honored with awards, for their defense of the environment. Former North Carolina state delegate Cindy Watson forced multi-million dollar corporate farms to improve animal waste disposal, after citizens complained to her about health hazards and pollution from the operations. Putting limits on the vast, open-air ponds of livestock urine and manure meant standing up to a powerful and profitable industry.
"The industry brings a lot of jobs. It does support a lot of the small businesses in our area. But the waste treatment was taking away private property rights. We didn't have clean air to breathe. Then we began to see contamination in some wells. There was nothing to do but listen to some of the people coming to my office, and I believe in democracy," she says.
In 1998, the North Carolina House approved Cindy Watson's legislation to limit hog waste lagoons. But she lost her bid for re-election due to overwhelming opposition from the state's largest corporate hog farmers.
Former Oklahoma state senator Paul Muegge also confronted giant farms that were polluting the local air and water. He sponsored several laws to regulate waste disposal in residential areas. "I'm a farmer, and I know what we're faced with in our farming operations with all the fertilizer and chemicals we use. But this put us in a situation that, as Cindy indicated, was affecting the neighborhood," he says.
The recipients of the annual Profile in Courage awards are chosen by a bipartisan committee of men and women in and out of government. Caroline Kennedy says recognizing the winners' integrity is important. "I think we need to award that courage and bravery. We need more of it. Many people think there aren't that many courageous politicians, but I think doing the research for this award has really inspired me," she says.
Caroline Kennedy says the awards are meant to inspire all of us to follow our conscience.