Pittsburgh first U.S. city to spend time with courageous women

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Hana Elhebshi transformed from an apolitical architect in Tripoli before the Libyan revolution to "Nomidia" -- a civilian who advised NATO strikes and leaked to the press the number of people killed and detained by Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

"During the revolution, something inside me ignited," the woman explained through an interpreter. "If every Libyan citizen did not take a step or do something, the revolution would not have been a success."

Ms. Elhebshi's story and her attitude are emblematic of the nine women with whom she will be honored Thursday as 2012 International Women of Courage award recipients by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The women, who were selected for going beyond the call of duty to forge progress in their community, are in Pittsburgh on the first stop of a three-week tour through the U.S.

"Pittsburgh was chosen because it has a rich history of civic activism," said Melanne Verveer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues.

On Monday, the award winners met with Gwen's Girls, a local organization that aims to empower young women through education and gender-based programming, to share their experiences. The women also participated in an open forum that evening at Chatham University.

Each story was different -- from a Myanmar woman imprisoned 11 years for distributing anti-government documents to a Brazilian military police major commanding efforts to take back Rio de Janeiro's slums.

But the theme remained the same: The women rose from oppression stronger and more determined than before.

"Each of them in a way tells a story about what is possible," Ms. Verveer said.

In Rio de Janeiro, Major Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo's story is well-known.

Her uncle, a police officer, was killed by drug lords 14 years ago. She followed his footsteps into police work and nearly was killed because of it.

As a street cop in the local slums, she was kidnapped from her doorstep and beaten by seven men. When she asked for help, onlookers did nothing.

She survived the attack and worked harder and safer, going home only two days a week, fearing regular death threats might materialize. In 2008, she was asked to command an operation to take back the slums through police presence and social work.

Initially, residents spat on her, but she didn't give up.

"The people in the slum saw that I cared for them, and they took me in," she said.

The 34-year-old, who has been featured in the local newspapers and magazines and on television stations for holding a high-ranking position for a woman, said she hoped the Women of Courage award will inspire others.

"I'm sure the women who live in the slums are going to be very happy," Major de Oliveira Azevedo said. "And my mother, too."

For some women, like Hawa Abdallah Mohammed Salih, the award allows them to come face to face with some of the people who have supported them.

The Sudanese human rights activist was accused of working with the Sudan Liberation Army, a terrorist group, converting from Islam to Christianity and trying to spread Christianity. She was arrested in May last year.

With support from around the world -- including Pittsburgh-area Sudanese who urged Pittsburgh City Council, Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Mike Doyle to write to Ms. Clinton on her behalf -- she was released in July.

On Sunday, David Rosenberg, coordinator for the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, and several others had a "surreal" experience when they met her.

"It was just remarkable," Mr. Rosenberg said. "She had some notion that we had worked among other groups for her release, and she was very appreciative."

Ms. Verveer was pleased that none of the 10 women chosen from the 88 nominated by U.S. embassies all over the world turned down the award this year in fear of negative repercussions.

"It's a great validation that this role enables them to be taken more seriously in the work that they do," she said.

The women will attend an awards ceremony Thursday with Ms. Clinton and Michelle Obama at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.

Their tour includes stops in Bozeman, Mont.; Cincinnati; East Lansing, Mich.; Indianapolis; Jackson, Wyo.; Kansas City, Mo.; Minneapolis; Pensacola, Fla.; St. Louis; Salt Lake City; and Seattle.

Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or tluna@post-gazette.com First Published March 6, 2012 5:00 AM


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