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21 Extraordinary Women Honored with Courage Award


First lady Jill Biden speaks at the 2021 International Women of Courage Award virtual ceremony at the US State Department, March 8, 2021.
First lady Jill Biden speaks at the 2021 International Women of Courage Award virtual ceremony at the US State Department, March 8, 2021.

The U.S. State Department recognized 21 women who have demonstrated leadership in advocating for human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, honoring them at an "International Women of Courage Award" ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

This year, the award was given posthumously to seven Afghan women after they were assassinated in 2020 while serving their communities during a pivotal moment in Afghanistan's history. Other award winners are from Belarus, Myanmar, China, Iran, Somalia, Turkey and Venezuela.

Among this year’s honorees are jailed Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, who has fought for the democratic movement in the aftermath of the disputed election; Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu, who was imprisoned and now remains in China under an exit ban; Iranian chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat, who chose to be a champion for women's rights after being accused of violating her country's strict Islamic dress code; Venezuelan labor rights advocate Ana Rosario Contreras, who has fought for the health care professionals; and Congolese human rights activist Julienne Lusenge, who has fought against gender-based violence.

Watch the award ceremony

Chinese lawyer absent

Chinese human rights lawyer Wang did not attend Monday’s virtual award ceremony; instead, the State Department played a pretaped message from Wang.

"We've not been in regular communication over the past two days. We are concerned because we know that she wanted to attend today's ceremony. We will be following up and if necessary speaking out on her case," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday.

In her pretaped message, Wang said, "As a lawyer by training, I think I have the obligation to push for the rule of law; therefore, I would like to see more people stand up and speak out for the rule of law, fairness and justice in China."

Wang added she had witnessed "judicial corruption and degeneration" while handling multiple politically sensitive cases.

In 2016, the Chinese government barred human rights activist Ni Yulan from traveling to Washington to accept the International Women of Courage Award. Ni continues to face threats and physical assault.

Burmese award winner

The United Nations says that in Myanmar more than 50 people have been killed in violence following a coup and the arrest of the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung, co-founder of the Wings Institute for Reconciliation, an organization that aims to bring young people together to bridge cultural and religious differences, was recognized in Monday’s ceremony.

Annual Award Recognizes Courageous Women 
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"It is a time of dramatic change in my country. There are women leaders from all walks of life… who courageously joined the anti-coup movement," she told VOA’s Burmese service.

"I feel awkward, uncomfortable and sad to receive this award in this difficult time. Even though I do not deserve this award compared to those who sacrificed most, I am accepting it on behalf of all courageous women who fight for democracy and freedom for our country," she said.

During the ceremony U.S. first lady Jill Biden spoke about the common struggles of the awardees.

"Your fight is our fight. And your courage causes us to come together again, and again, and again," Biden said.

"Diplomacy at its best is a recognition of this connection that freedom for women in Afghanistan strengthens communities everywhere, that education in Burma creates opportunity far away, that fair elections in Belarus will bolster our own democracy too," Biden said.

The IWOC award, now in its 15th year, has recognized more than 155 awardees from over 75 countries since March of 2007.