The International Women of Courage Award (IWOC) honors women around the world who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership to bring positive change to their communities, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.
Read on to learn about the dynamic virtual programs Global Ties Network Members designed for the awardees during the program’s 15th anniversary year.
Meridian International Center
Madeline Orange, Program Officer
National Program Agency Meridian International Center partnered with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and eight Global Ties Network Community-Based Members (CBMs) to implement a virtual International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) itinerary for the 2021 International Women of Courage awardees.
We were honored to spend almost two months virtually hosting this year’s awardees and accompanying them to their various meetings across the Global Ties network. The awardees inspired us and everyone who met with them through their unwavering passion and determined advocacy for their causes. We also had the honor of witnessing them build relationships with their liaisons, interpreters, American counterparts and fellow awardees during the program, despite its virtual nature. Nevertheless, we hope to one day meet all of them in person!
Georgia Council for International Visitors
Emily Shaw, Executive Director
Georgia Council for International Visitors (GCIV) was very fortunate to virtually host Muskan Khatun from Nepal, a true woman of courage. Muskan is an inspiration to us all at the incredible age of 16. When she was attacked with acid on her way to school, she used her voice to create change in Nepal and around the world by pushing for new legislation criminalizing acid attacks and imposing strong penalties against perpetrators.
While she virtually visited Atlanta, she met with the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta and Wellspring Living. During the meeting with Girl Scouts, she was able to meet with young women around her age to discuss how one can use their voice at any age to create change. With Wellspring Living, she talked with the director about the programs that they provide for girls who are survivors of sexual violence. Muskan inspired everyone in these meetings.
This was GCIV’s fifth IWOC awardee. Each time we are extremely humbled and honored to host these incredible women. While we would have loved to host her in person, the virtual program was just as special and rewarding for all involved.
Sasha Shahidi, Interim Professional Exchanges Manager
In April 2021 Global Minnesota had the honor of virtually hosting two International Women of Courage award honorees, Maximilienne C. Ngo Mbe from Cameroon and Julienne Lusenge from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Maximilienne has committed her life to promoting human rights in Cameroon and Central Africa, including calling for an end to human rights abuses throughout the Anglophone crisis and speaking out against increased oppression from the Government of Cameroon. Julienne, has spent decades as a leading activist in the DRC, organizing against gender-based violence and protecting the rights of women and girls in conflict situations. She is the founder of Women’s Solidarity for Peace and Integral Development.
Maximilienne and Julienne met with Professor Barbara Frey, Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota. They also met with staff members from Alight, a Minneapolis-based NGO that supports and empowers displaced people and refugees around the world, and Violence Free Minnesota, a statewide coalition of over 90 members working to end relationship abuse through programs in economic and racial justice, housing, equity rights, disability rights, and reproductive freedom.
We also hosted a virtual interview between Julienne, Maximilienne, and Cynthia Simba, a reporter from Mshale, an African community newspaper in Minnesota. Cynthia had thoughtful questions prepared that encouraged the IWOC honorees to share even more of their professional and personal stories.
It was rewarding to see relationships form in these meetings, with Julienne, Maximilienne and their Minnesota hosts committing to stay in touch and collaborate in the future. All involved were energized by their common social issues, challenges, and joys even though their circumstances are very different.
We received positive feedback from the awardees and from our guest speakers in Minnesota. All were pleased with how the meetings were organized and that they were given time and space to share their stories and experiences. Julienne said, “We were able to compare their life experiences with what we’ve lived through and see that wow, we have the same issues!”
IWOC is one of our favorite programs, and year after year we continue to be amazed at the incredibly brave and accomplished women selected for this honor. The excitement in our community to welcome and get to know them grows stronger every year.
Global Ties KC
Courtney Brooks, Executive Director
Global Ties KC hosted Shohreh Bayat, one of the 2021 International Women of Courage Awardees on a virtual International Visitor Leadership Program. Shohreh, the first female Category A international chess arbiter in Asia and a rising star in the world of elite chess competitions, was photographed at the Shanghai competition without her hijab, the headscarf which is mandatory in her home country, Iran. An outcry followed. Within 24 hours, the Iranian Chess Federation – which Shohreh had previously led – removed her profile from their website, and refused to guarantee Shohreh’s safety if she returned to Iran without first apologizing. Without having sought the spotlight, Shohreh became an international symbol of the plight of Iranian women who do not get to choose how they dress in public. Fearing for her safety and unwilling to apologize for the incident, she made the heart-wrenching decision to seek refuge in the UK.
Her Kansas City program included off-the record, small-group discussion of chess, sports, social activism, and human rights, and connections with the KC Sports Commission and Win for KC, United WE, ACLU of Kansas and the U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division. While the shift to a virtual program means she did not get to have a casual ice cream at the Kansas City Plaza or tour museums in person on a weekend, we look forward to the day that Shohreh is able to visit in-person. Conversations are underway, for what a chess-competition in the heartland would look like in 2022.
For those who have seen The Queen’s Gambit– yes, Shohreh can picture her chess board, wherever she goes!
International Visitors Center of Jackson
Sreenath Panchagnula, Graduate Assistant
For IWOC 2021, the International Visitors Center of Jackson (IVCJ) hosted two IWOC Awardees. Wang Yu from China and Ranitha Gnanarajah from Sri Lanka. Wang is one of the China’s most prominent human rights lawyers until her arrest and imprisonment. Ranitha, a lawyer, continues to fight for and defend the rights of the marginalized and vulnerable communities.
Our IWOC program included meetings with Courtney Body of the NAACP; Carol Burnett, Executive Director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative (MLICCI); Gayla Carpenter-Sanders, Executive Director and General Counsel of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project (MVLP); Beth Orlansky, Advocacy Director at the Mississippi Center for Justice; and Judge Denise Owens of the Hinds County Chancery Court. Our speakers were very much accommodating in our request for virtual meetings this year as they have supported both the IVLP and IWOC programs in the past. The aspects of the program that stood out the most to us were the exchange of information that occurred between the resources and awardees and the insightful questions asked by the awardees.
We received feedback from Wang indicating that she was impressed with the concern over women’s status and women’s rights in the U.S. She also stated that she hopes the meetings never end! Ranitha noted that she was surprised how public-private partnerships work in the U.S. to reduce disparities and discrimination. She also reported that women’s rights seem progressive and that communities seem efficient in the U.S. We have hosted awardees in previous years and most recently in 2020. The most notable change has been the caliber of women attending the program. Our IWOC awardees return to their countries feeling inspired and now have the tools necessary to make significant changes in their communities.
San Diego Diplomacy Council
Fabienne Perlov, Executive Director
At the San Diego Diplomacy Council, we are continually honored and humbled to host these International Women of Courage awardees in San Diego and care deeply about creating meaningful dialogue, collaboration, and connections between them and our community.
The San Diego Diplomacy Council was privileged to host Judge Erika Lorena Aifan from Guatemala. Erika Lorena has presided over high-profile cases involving powerful politicians and businessmen, drug traffickers and corrupt judges, which has led to multiple complaints and frequent harassment, prompting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to call for special protection on her behalf. Nevertheless, she continues to hold on to the knowledge that her position is one that affords her the opportunity to speak on behalf of thousands of women who cannot.
Like all our professional exchange programs this year, Erika Lorena’s visit to San Diego was conducted virtually. During her virtual visit, she had the opportunity to meet with various professionals, including Judge Tamila Ipema at the Superior Court of California, Geneviéve Jones-Wright, Executive Director at Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance (MOGO), and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of California.
We were delighted to hear that Erika Lorena found the connections that she established on her virtual exchange extremely helpful and personally engaging. The experience gave her the opportunity to “really delve” into topics that interested her and new ideas about how she can continue to make a lasting impact in her chosen field. “One the most valuable experiences might have been with Judge Ipema, she said, when she told me that she would nominate me to participate as a judge in the Pan-American Commission on Social Justice.”
Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy
Ahmad Zia Afzali, Program Director
Zahra Mohamed Ahmad is at the forefront of defending human rights in Somalia, especially for its most vulnerable groups – survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), internally displaced persons (IDPs), and refugee returnees. For more than 20 years, Zahra’s life and safety have been constantly at risk as she defends human rights in one of the most dangerous places on earth. As an accomplished lawyer, she advocates for increasing access to justice for marginalized and minority groups in south and central Somalia.
Zahra is the founder of and legal advisor for the Somali Women Development Center (SWDC), an organization that monitors human rights violations and cases of abuse, supports survivors through legal aid assistance, and provides free services, care centers, and legal clinics for SGBV survivors and IDP children.
Her program in Utah included virtual meetings with the Office of the Salt Lake City Prosecutor, Salt Lake City Police Department and Utah Office for Victims of Crime. She had the opportunity to discuss prosecution of domestic and gender-based violence cases and the laws under which these crimes are prosecuted, how police respond to reports of domestic and gender-based violence and victim support services in Utah.
Our local participants appreciated the opportunity to hear from Zahra about her courageous work defending human rights in Somalia with limited resources. The Salt Lake City Chief Prosecutor acknowledged her extraordinary work and offered to stay connected and provide professional support.
World Affairs Council St. Louis
The World Affairs Council of St. Louis was honored to host 2021 IWOC awardee Mayerlis Angarita from Colombia. Mayerlis, who has courageously advanced peace and human rights in Colombia, founded Narrate to Live, a civil society organization serving more than 800 women victims of conflict. After the most recent attempt on her life, Mayerlis engaged the highest levels of the Colombian government to advance a comprehensive plan of action to prevent violence against women leaders in the community.
Mayerlis was specifically interested in discussing how to dismantle of machismo behavior and protect women against sexual violence and abuse. She met with St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, as well as Safe Connections, one of the St. Louis area’s oldest and largest organizations working to prevent and end domestic and sexual violence while helping survivors thrive. She also met with Saint Louis Crisis Nursery, a recognized leader in child abuse and neglect prevention in the region, which highlighted their work with the Latinx community in St. Louis.
All of the professional resources Mayerlis met with, even virtually, were inspired and encouraged by her passion and her infectious smile. Specifically, she and Circuit Attorney Gardner connected on the very raw level of being worlds apart with different threats and struggles, yet finding commonality in their fears, challenges, and successes. After both shared their experience with death threats to themselves and their family, Mayerlis said, “We have to take care of ourselves, we can do much more, when we are living.”
Of her participation in the IVLP Mayerlis said, “The United States seems so big from afar, but being on this program helped me understand how close we are in our struggles together, and how similar we really are.”
All three organizations are interested in staying in touch with Mayerlis and will work to have her come visit in person when it is deemed safe to do so. We plan to meet up in the coming months and formulate a plan to bring her to St. Louis.
Sarah Sibley, Vice President for Citizen Diplomacy
True to Boston’s reputation as a City of Firsts, this year’s International Women of Courage IVLP program marked many firsts for WorldBoston—the first time hosting this prestigious program in a virtual capacity, and our first meeting with the office of Boston’s first female and first Black mayor, Kim Janey.
It was an honor to host Ana Rosario Contreras, a human rights activist, nurse, and President of the Caracas Nurses Association from Venezuela; and Sister Alicia Vacas Moro, a Spanish-born registered nurse and leader of the Comboni Sisters Missionary, who delivers humanitarian assistance in the Middle East. Despite the virtual nature of their visit, we were glad we could connect the awardees with the Boston Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
We were humbled to hear that they found these meetings directly applicable to their work on the frontlines, with Sister Alicia noting that she was surprised to learn about the concept of globalizing and organizing “women in the informal economy” from Martha Chen, Ph.D., of Harvard. Ana Rosario noted that these meetings gave her tools to “organize and establish” objectives to guide her advocacy work.
This exchange gave way to the mutual realization that there are many challenges that transcend borders and underscored by the pandemic like inadequate healthcare, racial and gender inequities, and sustaining democratic institutions. Borne out of these common challenges are common goals, that, as Ana Rosario put so well, include “a commitment to build a more equal world… [for] a better future.” This year’s IWOC program illustrated that this era of isolation only heightens the need to learn from one another and participate in exchange forums to work toward these common goals.