The U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award (IWOC) recognizes women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, rule of law, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. This year, the IWOC award ceremony was hosted at the White House for the first time in the award’s history, highlighting the commitment of President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, Ph.D. to lifting up the rights of women and girls around the world.
Each year, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) partners with Global Ties Network members to arrange an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) for the IWOC awardees. Continue reading to learn more about this year’s awardees, their remarkable stories, and their IVLP experience visiting diverse communities all over the United States.
Meridian International Center
By Jill Eynon and Renée Worthington
It was an honor and a privilege to have three cohorts of the International Women of Courage (IWOC) join us in person in Washington, DC this year after two years of virtual programs. The IWOC awardees are an inspiring group of women who have made significant contributions to their societies and the world. The 2021-2023 IWOC awardees included human rights defenders, journalists, activists, lawyers, judges, educators, health workers, and more. They all have faced various challenges and threats in their work, such as violence, harassment, imprisonment, censorship, and discrimination, and have shown remarkable courage and leadership in their respective fields.
While in DC, they had the opportunity to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden at the White House before the 2023 cohort received their awards and shared their stories with the 2021 and 2022 awardees in attendance. This was the first IWOC Award Ceremony to take place at the White House in the program’s 17-year-history.
Following the DC visit, the 2023 awardees traveled across the United States as participants of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). The 2021 and 2022 IWOC alumnae headed home as they had previously participated in virtual IVLP exchange programs. The IVLP is an opportunity for global leaders to connect with U.S. counterparts and strengthen their global networks. The women leaders were hosted by five Global Ties Network Community-Based Members and engaged with local communities and organizations on issues such as human rights, democracy, gender equality, and social justice. Their IVLP project concluded in Los Angeles with an awards dinner hosted by American Women for International Understanding.
Cleveland Council on World Affairs
By Maria Garcia-Ollalla, International Visitor Program Associate
This past March, the Cleveland Council on World Affairs hosted two amazing women who received the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award from Secretary of State Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden.
Professor Daniele Darlan, from the Central African Republic, and Senator Datuk Ras Adiba Radzi, from Malaysia, are extraordinary and courageous women who stood up for their communities to advocate for democracy, human rights, and equality.
During their time in Cleveland, they met with organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors that focus on voting rights, leadership, equal representation, disability rights, accessible housing, disinformation, and the importance of a strong democracy. In all the sessions, both IWOC awardees were surprised and encouraged by the amazing work these organizations are doing in Cleveland and cheered the speakers on.
The awardees also had an opportunity to share their stories and the incredible work that they are leading in their respective countries. At an event to help Cleveland mark International Women’s Day (March 8), Daniele and Datuk spoke about the challenges and impact of their work, and also advised everyone to not give up and to keep fighting for equality. One attendee shared that, “As a young woman, it was inspirational to hear such brave and accomplished women speak. It was truly an honor to have them here in Cleveland.” The crowd cheered them on as they shared inspiring words about the role of women in solving shared global challenge.
One session that truly stood out to me was with Maximum Accessible Housing of Ohio (MAHO). MAHO provides and promotes accessible housing solutions for people with physical mobility disabilities. During the session, Senator Radzi met with some of the residents at the MAHO facility and was surprised to learn that they knew who she was. The residents had heard her TED Talk and were honored to be meeting one of their heroes, and shared how proud they were to have such a leader for people with disabilities around the world in their home. They spent close to two hours speaking with her about their community in Cleveland and how MAHO has helped them be more independent.
This in-person project truly embodied the power of courage and shared experiences. These two amazing women connected with people on a human level and could not have been humbler about their own accomplishments. Shared experiences are what exchanges are all about: breaking down barriers and connecting on a human level to find solutions to world problems. This was a truly inspiring project, and I could not have been more honored to have met Professor Daniele Darlan and Senator Datuk Ras Adiba Radzi.
Georgia Council for International Visitors
By Emily Shaw, Executive Director
In March, the Georgia Council for International Visitors (GCIV) had the distinct honor of hosting two of 11 Secretary of State International Women of Courage Awardees; one for an in-person program: Bakhytzhan Toregozhina of Kazakhstan, and one for a virtual program: Hadeel Abdel Aziz of Jordan. Bakhytzhan is a well-regarded civil society leader who has dedicated nearly 25 years to promote the protection of human rights. Abdel is a frontline defender of Jordan’s most marginalized, including juveniles, refugees, migrants, and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
Our goals for this program were to facilitate exchanges between the IWOC awardees and U.S. peers on legal support and advocacy for the rights and inclusion of vulnerable and marginalized communities, freedom of expression, human rights, and government transparency.
While in Georgia, Bakhytzhan met with representatives from Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Refugee Women’s Network, Atlanta Women for Equality and The Carter Center. She was also the guest of honor at a GCIV member’s only reception, where she enjoyed dinner hospitality with volunteer GCIV hosts and toured various Atlanta cultural institutions, including the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.
Bakhytzhan expressed what a rewarding and transformative experience her visit to Atlanta was and how welcomed she felt throughout. She appreciated all of the experiences and interactions while in our community, from the outstanding professional meetings to warm home hospitality to enriching cultural activities. She commented that she felt valued and appreciated everywhere she went and wished that she could spend more time in Atlanta. Having hosted a virtual IWOC awardee during the pandemic, it was so enriching to have the program in person again. It was truly an honor to host Bakhytzhan.
Global Ties KC
By Courtney Brooks, President & CEO
Over the last 40 years, the world has come far in our valuation of women and girls. When the Taliban first fell in 2001, girls, who had been prevented from receiving an education, were allowed to go to school. For Zakira Hekmat, who was born an internally displaced person in Afghanistan and completed high school secretly under the Taliban’s first period of control, this was a life-changing moment that gave her the space to become a medical doctor.
On March 8, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden, Ph.D., hosted the annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards ceremony at the White House, where they recognized Dr. Zakira Hekmat for her ongoing courage and work. Just a few days later, she travelled to Kansas City through Global Ties KC and met with nonprofits in her similar field of work.
Also invited to the awards ceremony at the White House were the 2021 and 2022 IWOC awardees. Kansas City had hosted the IWOC awardee from Brazil in 2022, and from Iran in 2021, and it was truly amazing to see them all travel and be recognized in Washington, DC! Despite the logistical challenge of coordinating the return of the alumni alongside this year’s program (huge kudos to the DC team), it was inspiring to hear their stories and see the impact of having multiple years of exceptional recipients in one space. These women are some of the most hardworking and resilient people I’ve had the honor of meeting.
While it’s easy to focus on the prestige and publicity of the IWOC program, it’s important to remember that these women don’t receive the red-carpet treatment every day. That is what I find most special and amazing about the International Women of Courage program. The U.S. Department of State selects a group of leaders who have given their blood, sweat, tears, and incredible levels of self-sacrifice to make the world a better place and to support other women and vulnerable people. It is this dedication that makes these women truly deserving of recognition.
Dr. Zakira Hekmat is a wonderful human, advocate, mother, nonprofit leader, medical doctor, and member of her community. She is the first IWOC awardee to ever make the decision to stand before two flags: that of Afghanistan, her home country, and Turkey, her adopted country.
After winning a scholarship to study in Türkiye, she eventually qualified as a medical doctor in 2018. Throughout her medical studies, Dr. Hekmat volunteered with refugee assistance organizations where she recognized a need to advocate for marginalized refugee groups’ rights and access to services. From a one-room office, she founded the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association in Türkiye in 2014, where she has since worked tirelessly to advocate for the rights of all refugees and women. As one of the few female leaders of a refugee-led community organization in Türkiye, she called on the Turkish government and public not to forget and assist those fleeing conflict and persecution, especially after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Thanks to Dr. Hekmat’s efforts, many Afghans, especially women, girls, and minorities, have received access to refugee protection and asylum.
Dr. Hekmat’s time in Kansas City included meetings with a variety of refugee and women’s support organizations, as well as home hospitality, a concert, and a large community event at the Kansas City Kansas Rotary Club where she gave an incredibly moving presentation on the current realities of Afghanistan, where it is once again illegal for girls in Afghanistan to receive an education. This time around, that ban extends all the way down, where even elementary schools where girls are forbidden from an access to education.
Tulsa Global Alliance
By Bob Lieser, Vice President of Programs
Tulsa Global Alliance (TGA) was honored to Doris Rios, an indigenous rights activist from Costa Rica, and Alba Rueda, a transgender rights activist from Argentina, as our 2023 International Women of Courage (IWOC) recipients.
TGA arranged for both IWOC recipients to meet with local organizations and individuals including former Sac and Fox Nation Chief Kay Rhoads, the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, Osage News, Office of the Cherokee Nation Attorney General, and the Tulsa Intersectional Care Network. The IWOC recipients also also took part in a panel discussion on serving vulnerable communities with representatives of the Community Service Council, Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, and YWCA Immigrant and Refugee Services. The two IWOC awardees spoke with over 50 Tulsans at a lunch organized by Rodger Randle, a former Tulsa Mayor and Director of the University of Oklahoma Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture.
TGA also arranged for Doris and Alba to enjoy home hospitality in the home of Tulsa family Edith and Glenn Wilson. Edith had these comments about her experience hosting IWOC:
“For Glenn and me, the pandemic was bookended by hosting the IWOC guests. We had Rita Nyampinga at our dining room table the day the world stood still in March 2020, and we’ve remained in close contact via Facebook with her ever since. We’ve celebrated small triumphs and defeats in the intervening three years, and she always speaks fondly of the evening, especially the fact that Glenn introduced her to Spotify and shared several playlists with her.
Alba and Doris were our treasured guests in March of 2023. Alba and I shared our favorite books of the pandemic era, from John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza” to José Saramago’s “Blindness.” Doris held us spellbound over coffee with an original poem, composed as she spoke, and beautifully translated by their liaison and interpreter, Jennifer. I was honored to be invited to a lunch in honor of Doris and Alba hosted by Roger Randle. We saw each other two days after meeting for the first time and it felt as though we were neighbors or high-school classmates. These are exceptional women – ordinary people who have created lives filled with extraordinary and courageous actions – truly a continuing inspiration to us.”
Editor’s note: A link to learn more about Tulsa’s March 2020 IWOC program with Rita Nyampinga is available here.
World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth
By Elaine Tricoli, Director of International Visitor Programs
In March, the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth was honored to host three recipients of the Secretary of State’s 2023 International Women of Courage Award: Meaza Mohammed (Ethiopia), Yuliia Paievska (Ukraine), and Bianka Zalewska (Poland); three are strong voices in the fight for human rights refusing to be silenced in the face of adversity.
The IWOC recipients shared their experiences advocating for human rights, democracy, and independence in meetings with Castleberry Peace Institute of the University of North Texas; Southern Methodist University’s Human Rights Center; Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support; City of Dallas Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs; Gendercide Awareness Project; and the Dallas Morning News.
The group also participated in our event, Changing Our World: A Conversation with International Women of Courage, a panel conversation open to the public and moderated by Christopher Walsh of the George W. Bush Institute. The event focused on what it means to be a person of courage and was attended by an enthusiastic crowd, including diaspora from the awardees’ home countries. The three women were also warmly welcomed into the homes of three Council volunteers for an evening of dinner diplomacy that left a profound impact on their hosts.
We are thankful for these powerful and uplifting conversations and the opportunity to witness the strength and resilience of Bianka, Meaza, and Yuliia – women who defy extraordinary circumstances, pave untraditional paths of advocacy, and who were gracious in sharing their stories with North Texas.
International Citizen Diplomacy of Los Angeles
By Eleanor Alberg, Communications and Events Coordinator
International Citizen Diplomacy of Los Angeles (ICDLA) was honored to host the International Women of Courage (IWOC) in Los Angeles for the “grand finale” of their program! ICDLA has been organizing the Los Angeles portion of the IWOC International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) as well as an annual luncheon in the women’s honor since 2016. After three years of virtual IWOC, it was our pleasure to meet these incredible women in person again.
The day we receive their bios is always exciting, as we are able to learn about and fully appreciate their determination and resilience. Meeting them in person, shaking their hands and witnessing their enthusiasm and camaraderie is a moving experience for us.
This year 11 women were chosen as International Women of Courage, but due to personal reasons, Hadeel Abdel Aziz of Jordan and Brigadier General Bolor Ganbold of Mongolia, were not able to travel to Los Angeles. On March 15, the other nine awardees had the opportunity to reunite in Los Angeles after spending time apart in other cities across the United States. With fresh perspectives and a repertoire of new experiences, the women took part in a sharing session, where they were able to discuss their professional meetings and cultural activities in different communities around the country.
The women unanimously agreed they gained lifelong friendships through this once-in-a-lifetime experience. No matter how varied their experiences and how different their backgrounds are, they all share a common strength, courage, and vision for the future. It is amazing how powerfully they are able to convey their message of courage to us all.
The following day ICDLA hosted a Perseverance Through Adversity Luncheon in honor of the women in the Tom Bradley Tower at Los Angeles City Hall. The event featured Danièle Darlan of the Central African Republic, Meaza Mohammed of Ethiopia, and Bakhytzhan Toregozhina of Kazakhstan in a moderated panel discussion with Joumana Silyan-Saba, Director of Policy for the City of Los Angeles Department of Civil and Human Rights. The women candidly shared the serious challenges they face as they fight to improve the lives of people in their countries and take action against human rights violations.
During the discussion, the panelists stressed the importance of international media attention and support for local journalists so that human and civil rights violations occurring in their countries are brought to light, and hopefully, inspire people everywhere to take action against these injustices. In the evening, the American Women for International Understanding held a gala celebration in the women’s honor, where several of the women also made presentations.
Their time in Los Angeles provided a wonderful opportunity for ICDLA members, colleagues, and professional resources to connect with these courageous women and learn firsthand the vital issues in each of their countries. Being recognized as an International Women of Courage awardee provides these 11 incredible women with a platform to spread their messages, not only in their own countries but around the world.