State Dept. Issues 3rd Annual Awards for International Women of Courage

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama had high praise for each other at a State Department event honoring recipients of the Award for International Women of Courage. Video by DeNeen Brown/The Washington Post
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

First lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came together onstage yesterday to honor "brave women." Obama stood to the side of the lectern as Clinton spoke at the State Department.

"I am especially delighted to thank one person in particular whose presence means a great deal to all of us," Clinton said to applause, "our first lady, Michelle Obama."

Clinton turned in Obama's direction. "Now, I know a little bit about the role that Michelle Obama is filling now," Clinton said, drawing laughter from those gathered. "And I have to say that in a very short time, she has, through her grace and wisdom, become an inspiration to women and girls not only in the United States, but around the world."

Obama joined Clinton to present the State Department's Award for International Women of Courage to seven activists, including honorees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Malaysia and Uzbekistan. It was Obama and Clinton's first public event together since the inauguration. And shall we say they shared the stage nicely? Each gave the other enough room, a former first lady and another folded into that position.

"Let me thank Secretary Clinton -- I love saying that . . . for that kind introduction. I have said this before, but the woman who is running this department, this big, huge effort, has always been such a committed person, friend, supporter, to me."

The administration aims to raise the profile of women's issues by taking steps such as the creation of a White House Council on Women and Girls, announced yesterday; it will be headed by White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett. The president and Clinton also established the position of ambassador-at-large for global women's issues and nominated Melanne Verveer, Clinton's chief of staff when she was first lady, for the post.

The International Women of Courage Award was created three years ago by then-Secretary Condoleezza Rice. The honorees yesterday included a former child slave from Niger, a Russian activist who led investigations into military deaths there and a woman trying to combat violence against women in her native Guatemala.

"The women we honor today teach us three very important lessons," Obama told a crowd of more than 300 people. "One, that as women, we must stand up for ourselves. The second, as women, we must stand up for each other. And finally, as women, we must stand up for justice for all."

The women who stood in a line next to her were each announced. They shook hands with Obama and Clinton or they hugged them, apparently depending on culture and comfort level. Hadizatou Mani of Niger, who was 12 when she was sold into slavery, held her hands together almost limply. Her head was covered by a white veil trimmed in yellow. She almost timidly held out her right hand to Obama.

Mani worked with a nongovernmental organization in her country to charge the government of Niger with failing to protect her under anti-slavery laws. "It was very difficult to challenge my former master and to speak out when people see you as nothing more than a slave," Mani told the British-based charitable organization Anti-Slavery International. "Nobody deserves to be enslaved. . . . No woman should suffer the way I did."

One awardee was not present: 12-year-old Reem Al Numery of Yemen, who last year was forced to marry her 30-year-old cousin. Her government would not allow her to attend yesterday's ceremony.

Reem's story brought light to the plight of preteen girls in Yemen who are coerced into marriage. Reem's fight for a divorce has challenged the legal system in her homeland to end "this crime that robs girls of their childhood," the State Department said.

"While my hair was styled for the ceremony, I thought of ways to set fire to my wedding dress," Reem told embassy officials. "When I protested, my dad gagged me and tied me up. After the wedding, I tried to kill myself twice." Reem's father will not consent to the divorce she seeks. Because she is a minor, a judge declared that she must remain married until she is 15, when she will permitted to make her own decisions.

Her attorney told the Yemen Times that Reem wants a normal life. "Sometimes, she just wants to play and enjoy life like a young girl, and other times she is talking about things like a mature woman who has been married for long. This marriage experience has made her neither girl nor woman."

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

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