The Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award (IWOC) annually recognizes women around the globe 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. Since the inception of this award in 2007, the U.S. Department of State has honored over 100 women from more than 60 different countries.
After a ceremony honoring them in Washington, DC awardees spend several days in communities across the U.S., sharing their stories and inspiring the Americans they meet.
Little known fact: Denver is the birthplace of the Americans with Disability Act. It is also a relatively young city, so much of our infrastructure was built with wheelchair access. So, when we learned that Malebogo Molefhe–the International Woman of Courage assigned to WorldDenver–was wheelchair-bound, we knew we’d have a lot to share with her. But little did we know how much.
Malebogo was a professional basketball player in Botswana until her career was cut short by an enraged ex-boyfriend. He shot her eight times and left her paralyzed from the waist down. Years later, Malebogo’s strength and courage inspired her to make the elimination of gender-based violence her main passion (the other is building a basketball team for women with disabilities).
Malebogo’s official visit left a big impression in Denver. She met with victim advocates, a special domestic violence police unit, and domestic violence shelter providers. She toured a multi-service center for victims and their children. She spent time with the leaders of ADAPT, the stop-at-nothing activists who overturned their wheelchairs on Denver streets 30 years ago to demonstrate the need for accessible transportation. She enjoyed home hospitality in a completely accessible high rise overlooking downtown. She saw her first snowfall. She watched a 50-year record being broken at a Denver Nuggets game. And she told her story, many times over, of overcoming the physical and emotional damage of her attack so she could take on her greater mission. It was inspiring.
And then…we noticed that her wheelchair seemed hard to manage and didn’t fit very well. She could not maneuver it by herself. She had traveled to the U.S. with a family friend who pushed her chair and looked after her every need. (You know the African saying, “it takes a village…” well, Malebogo brought her village with her!) Malebogo’s most impressionable visit was to Craig Rehabilitation Hospital, which specializes in spinal cord injuries. There we saw miracle workers and technology that brought us to tears. I asked the wheelchair clinic director to look at Malebogo’s wheelchair: “bucket of bolts” was the pronouncement. When we asked hospital staff if they could help, they first tried to repair it but in the end, supplied Malebogo with a new chair specially fitted for her which she could move by herself. It was a fitting capstone to her time in Denver.
The Iowa International Center (IIC) heard these words over and over again during Rebecca Kabugho’s program in Des Moines. Throughout her five-day stay, Rebecca shared her story and perspectives on fighting for social justice and democratic processes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
During her visit, Rebecca sparked incredible connections and responses from people she met. Among the most memorable were:
- The congregation at the Living Water Evangelical Free Church of Des Moines welcomed Rebecca as an honored guest. The church was founded by refugees from the DRC, and the congregation is comprised of refugees and immigrants from six African countries. Over dinner congregants expressed appreciation for Rebecca’s commitment to continuing her fight for democracy and justice in the DRC.
- After Rebecca met Iowa State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, he introduced her at the day’s opening gavel of the Iowa House of Representatives, where she received a standing ovation.
- Given Rebecca’s jail experiences in the DRC, she was especially interested in visiting the Polk County Jail. She toured the facilities and learned about programs to assist inmates with issues ranging from chemical dependence to mental health treatment.
- Rebecca was interviewed by Des Moines Register columnist Ms. Rekha Basu. Ms. Basu’s article highlighted Rebecca’s experiences and how, in spite of governmental intimidation, she remains steadfast in her commitment to improving her country.
Rebecca and her story touched IIC volunteers as well:
- In anticipation of cold, rainy weather, an IIC volunteer offered Rebecca use of a winter coat and gloves. The coat was a bright red, which matched Rebecca’s sunny personality to a “t.”
- Rebecca and her interpreter had local French-speaking volunteers serve as liaisons with them during their Iowa program.
- Dinner in the home of local volunteers provided Rebecca with an insight into a “real” American home and lifestyle.
As another example of her impact, Rebecca has been invited to return to Iowa later this year to speak at a statewide conference. It’s an understatement to say that Rebecca Kabugho’s visit to Des Moines as an IWOC honoree introduced our community to an inspiring, courageous, and dedicated young woman.