Women from Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and China have been selected for a prestigious award for demonstrating exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for justice, gender equality and women’s empowerment, the US State Department has said.
The annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) award recognises women from around the globe. It will be presented in a virtual ceremony next week, the department said on Thursday.
First Lady Dr Jill Biden would deliver a special message with the award being presented by the Secretary of State Tony Blinken.
The award recognises women who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment – often at great personal risk and sacrifice, it said.
Among the awardees include Phyoe Phyoe Aung, an emerging leader from Myanmar who the State Department said is likely to play a role in shaping the country in the coming years.
She is the co-founder of the Wings Institute for Reconciliation, an organisation that facilitates exchanges between youth of different ethnic and religious groups. Her work promotes peace building and reconciliation and enables a vital dialogue on federalism and transitional justice.
She organised a 2015 protest march from Mandalay to Yangon that was violently suppressed by the Myanmar Police Force as it neared Yangon, and she and her husband were arrested and imprisoned.
Phyoe Phyoe was released in April 2016 after 13 months as part of a broad pardon of political prisoners facing court trials.
Wang Yu, who was one of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers until her arrest and imprisonment following China’s nationwide persecution of lawyers and rights advocates during the 709 crackdown, is also one of the recipient of the award. She had taken on multiple politically sensitive cases, representing activists, scholars, Falun Gong practitioners, farmers, and petitioners in cases involving a wide array of issues, including women’s and children’s rights, and the rights to religion, freedom of expression, assembly, and association, the department said.
She is now under an exit ban and has been harassed, threatened, searched, and physically assaulted by police since she began to take on rights abuse cases in 2011, the State Department said.
Muskan Khatun from Nepal has been selected for the award for being instrumental in bringing about new legislation criminalising acid attacks and imposing strong penalties against perpetrators in Nepal.
When Muskan was 15, she was critically injured in an acid attack after she rejected a boy’s romantic propositions. With the help of a social worker, Muskan lobbied for stronger legal action against the perpetrators of acid attacks under duress of threats and the strong social stigma associated with acid attack victims.
She went before a parliamentary committee, wrote a letter to Nepal’s Prime Minister (KP Sharma Oli), and eventually met with him in person, to request a stronger law. Within a year of her attack, Nepal’s President issued an ordinance with harsh penalties for acid attacks and regulations on the sale of acids, a testament to Muskan’s significant advocacy.
Sri Lankan lawyer Ranitha Gnanarajah has also been selected for the award. The State Department said he continues to fight for and defend the rights of the marginalised and vulnerable communities in the country, despite threats and challenges by the state.
Ranitha has dedicated her career to accountability and justice for victims of enforced disappearances and prisoners detained often for years without charge under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act by providing free legal aid and related services.
As an individual personally affected by the conflict and based on her extensive experience working with victims and their families, Ranitha has demonstrated tremendous passion and dedication to justice and accountability, especially for Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable populations.
Other recipients of award are Maria Kalesnikava from Belarus, Maximilienne C. Ngo Mbe from Cameron, Mayerlis Angarita from Columbia; Julienne Lusenge from Congo; Judge Erika Aifan from Guatemala; Shohreh Bayat from Iran; Zahra Mohamed Ahmad from Spain, Canan Gullu from Turkey; and Ana Rosario Contreras from Venezuela.
In addition to the individual IWOC awards that will be presented on March 8, Blinken will also present an honorary IWOC award to a group of seven Afghan women who were assassinated in 2020 while serving their communities during a pivotal moment in Afghanistan’s history.
These tragic murders underscore the alarming trend of increased targeting of women in Afghanistan and the United States condemns these acts of violence, the State Department said. These Afghan woman are Fatema Natasha Khalil, General Sharmila Frough, Maryam Noorzad, Fatima Rajabi, Freshta, Malalai Maiwand, and Freshta Kohistani.