Four International Women of Courage make Pittsburgh stop


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Editor's note: posted on March 4, 2013: This story has been altered to reflect a change in the list of recipients.

They come from different corners of the world, but they all share similar experiences -- including abuse, violence, oppression and cultures where women have few rights. And they all share a vision of a world where women will stand up, end their silence and move forward.

This week, 10 women will be honored with the Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award in Washington, D.C. The awards recognize women who have displayed exceptional courage and leadership as women's rights advocates. Since the awards began in 2007, they've recognized the work of 69 women.

Four of the 11 honorees are starting their U.S. visit in Pittsburgh. They'll be talking about their experiences tonight at Chatham University.

Malalai Bahaduri is a first sergeant with the Afghan National Interdiction Unit, where she works to target Afghan drug traffickers and networks.

She is one of the few women doing this kind of work in her country. "I want to encourage other women to participate in this work. I want to show that women can have a family, can work and can lead. I want to show girls and women in Afghanistan that they are capable of leading and doing different jobs, that they are not just supposed to do their household jobs. I'm trying to get them to not stay in the corner of those houses, but to get out and get the attention of the world and become proactive."

Samira Ibrahim, coordinator of Know Your Rights in Egypt, took part in the March 2011 sit-ins at Tahrir Square, where she was among a group of women who were beaten, strip-searched and given virginity tests. After that, she said, the powers that be "expected silence," but she brought charges against the military, and virginity testing was banned by a civilian court in December 2011.

Her experience led to the founding of Know Your Rights. "Our goal is to encourage young women to share their stories using social media, to share those stories of sexual violations or any kind of violations, and to educate women about their political rights."

Josephine Obiajulu Odumakin is president of the Campaign for Democracy in Nigeria. She has handled more than 2,000 cases of women's rights violations and has been detained many times. She is also president of Women Arise, which is dedicated to encourage women to stand up to abuse. "It was formed to break the culture of silence and to ensure that women are given a say politically," she said.

Fartuun Adan is executive director of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Somalia. She established the first sexual violence hot line and rape crisis center in Mogadishu, and she initiated a program to support survivors of gender-based violence.

All four have paid a heavy price for their work -- from job loss and rejection by family members to arrests and death threats.

They hope their visit will give Americans a clearer picture of what happens in other countries.

"Governments "will realize that [the] whole world knows what is happening," Ms. Odumakin said.

All said that they've seen small victories in their long, ongoing battles. "I believe we can change. Maybe not tomorrow, but it's going to come," Ms. Adan said.

After Pittsburgh, they'll head for Washington, where they'll meet with Department of State and White House officials and members of Congress.

Secretary of State John Kerry and first lady Michelle Obama will present the awards in Washington on Friday.

After the awards ceremony, the award winners will travel to Indianapolis; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; San Francisco; Tampa, Fla., and Jackson, Wyo., to discuss global women's rights.

The four women will take part in an invitation-only public forum tonight at 7 at Chatham University's Eddy Theatre.

Other award recipients this year are: Julieta Castellanos, rector of the National Autonomous University of Honduras; Elena Milashina, a journalist and human rights activist from Russia; Tsering Woeser, a human rights activist from China; Razan Zeitunah, a human rights lawyer in Syria; and Ta Phong Tan, a blogger from Vietnam.

The awards also will posthumously honor Nirbhaya, the name given to protect the identity of the 23-year-old woman who died following a brutal gang rape in India.

The Pittsburgh visit was arranged by GlobalPittsburgh, the liaison in this region for the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program, under which the group of women is visiting the U.S.

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Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.


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