U.S. first lady Melania Trump, in a rare solo public appearance, presented the International Women of Courage Award to 13 women in Washington on Wednesday.
"These honorees on the stage with me have fought for their rights and for the rights of others. Each [of them] battle forces, such as governments, the courts, gender bias, terrorism, war and corruption, and were willing, in each moment, to face harsh penalties including imprisonment and death," Trump said.
“Together, with the international community, the United States must send a clear message that we are watching. It is therefore our duty to continue to shine the light on each miraculous victory achieved by women— all capable of trying, truly leading the change to fight for those that cannot fight for themselves,” she said.
WATCH: First Lady Presents International Women of Courage Award
The Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award honors women around the world for exhibiting courage and leadership in their advocacy for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.
The award often honors women who have been imprisoned, tortured or threatened with death or serious harm for standing up for justice, human rights and the rule of law.
This year, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese green blogger and environmental activist known as “Mother Mushroom,” could not attend because she’s been in prison since October 2016.
The State Department has consistently called on the government of Vietnam to provide for Quynh’s immediate release.
“We believe that international recognition for her courage and advocacy will help bring attention to her work to address corruption and promote human rights in Vietnam,” State Department East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau spokesperson Grace Choi told VOA.
“We hope that the award will shed a spotlight on the issue of freedom of expression, including on the Internet, in Vietnam,” Choi added.
In Colombia, a law that increases penalties on attackers who use chemical agents was passed in January of 2016, bearing the name of Natalia Ponce de Leon. She survived an acid attack three years ago and has been an advocate for the rights of burn victims. The law also requires the ministry of health to improve training in hospital burn units for acid attacks and other burn victims.
“During my recovery, I understood that I had two options: the easy way, I could lie in bed, filling myself up with hate and anger; or the hard way, standing strong and making all these tragedies something greater. And so I did,” Natalia Ponce de Leon told an audience at the State Department.
Major Aichatou Ousmane Issaka became one of the first women in Niger to join the army in 1996. She was recognized for her advocacy to raise awareness about gender sensitivities in conflict areas.
Traveling to the United States for the first time, Veronica Simogun from Papua New Guinea was honored for her campaign to protect women from gender based violence.
“I am fighting for equality, gender justice in my country. I deal with these cases all the time. There’s a lot of abuses and a lot of discrimination,” Simogun told VOA.
“Women’s voices need to be heard, and there should be equality for women and children.”
Since its creation in 2007, the program has awarded more than 100 women from 60 countries.
Trump presented the awards alongside Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon.
After the ceremony, the women will travel to a number of American cities on individual International Visitor Leadership Programs before reconvening in Los Angeles to discuss further collaboration to improve the lives of women and girls across the globe.
The 2017 awardees are:
- Sharmin Akter, Activist Against Early/ Forced Marriage, Bangladesh
- Malebogo Molefhe, Human Rights Activist, Botswana
- Natalia Ponce de Leon, President, Natalia Ponce de Leon Foundation, Colombia
- Rebecca Kabugho, Political and Social Activist, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Jannat Al Ghezi, Deputy Director of The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Iraq
- Major Aichatou Ousmane Issaka, Deputy Director of Social Work at the Military Hospital of Niamey, Niger
- Veronica Simogun, Director and Founder, Family for Change Association, Papua New Guinea
- Cindy Arlette Contreras Bautista, Lawyer and Founder of Not One Woman Less, Peru
- Sandya Eknelygoda, Human Rights Activist, Sri Lanka
- Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh, Member, Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (F.M.A.), Syria
- Saadet Ozkan, Educator and Gender Activist, Turkey
- Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Blogger and Environmental Activist, Vietnam
- Fadia Najib Thabet, Human Rights Activist, Yemen
VOA's Esha Sarai contributed to this report.