Outrage, compassion, a desire for justice. These are some of the motivations of 10 women honored by the U.S. State Department this year with the International Women of Courage Award.
Presented their awards in Washington March 23 by first lady Melania Trump, the women include L’Malouma Said, who was born into slavery, became a civil rights activist and is now a deputy in the Mauritanian national assembly. There she has worked for human rights, prison reform, and to improve conditions for Haratines, an ethnic group descended from slaves.
Helping victims of torture
Another honoree, a Kosovo physician Feride Rushiti, works with the survivors of the massacres, rape and torture from the Kosovo War 1998 and 1999, when Yugoslav and Serbian forces targeted ethnic Albanians suspected of supporting rebel fighters. Rushiti was one of a handful of awardees who spoke recently in Los Angeles.
She said the stories of survivors led her to create the Kosovo Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims.
“The stories of the mothers, the stories of the girls, of children, of parents that I heard really affected me a lot, and sometimes I cried with them,” she said.
Her center uses a multidisciplinary approach to helping refugees, especially women. She said it offers “psychotherapy, medical therapy, legal aid where it’s needed, social support, and empowerment programs “because the majority of those women and girls unfortunately are living in extreme poverty.”
Progress in Rwanda
The 1994 Rwandan genocide spurred the work of another woman, Godelieve Mukasarasi, to bring the perpetrators to justice. She was undeterred when her husband and daughter were murdered after she decided to testify at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
She now works with rape victims and their children, organizing “forums where they can meet together and deal with the trauma that they’ve been through,” she explained in French.
Mukasarasi sees progress in her country, saying that more Rwandans today see themselves as Rwandans and identify less with the class or tribal divisions that fueled the 1990s genocide.
A forensic pathologist from Honduras, Julissa Villanueva, was among the honorees who traveled to Los Angeles. She oversees 650 experts in the Honduran Attorney General’s Forensic Medicine Department who use scientific evidence to solve murders and other cases of violent crime, especially against women and children.
Justice in domestic violence
Aiman Umarova, a criminal lawyer from Kazakhstan, works to bring justice to victims of sexual violence in her country. For Kazakh women, says Umarova, domestic violence was long considered a taboo topic.
While old attitudes persist, she says, her country has laws protecting those who speak out, “but many cases finish without suitable compensation for victims.” Compensation can amount to just a few thousand dollars in cases of violent rape, which she says “victimizes the victims a second time.” She says she is fighting to change that.
Janet Elliott of the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles, who worked with the State Department to bring some of the award winners to her city, says these women have shown courage in overcoming violence and persecution.