Biographies of the Finalists for the 2017 International Women of Courage Awards

AFRICAN AFFAIRS (AF)

Ms. Malebogo Molefhe (Botswana)

Malebogo Molefhe is a former National Basketball player who narrowly escaped death after being brutally attacked and shot eight times in 2009 by a deranged ex-boyfriend. She survived the attack but is confined to a wheelchair due to extensive spinal cord injuries. Since her attack Malebogo has felt led to advocate for her herself and other women and girls who are victims of gender-based violence (GBV). She began speaking out against domestic abuse and GBV on national radio, facilitating workshops and training on organizational wellness with leading state organizations and non-governmental organizations in Botswana, and volunteering in communities across the country to bring awareness to these issues and shine light on cultural norms that promote the continuation of GBV in Botswana. Malebogo has dedicated her life to teaching young girls about self-esteem and self-respect to fight against gender oppression and domestic abuse. She currently is working with the Ministry of Education to develop a program for school-age children to teach and help them to understand the implications of violence in the home. Malebogo also advocates for the advancement of women in sports with a particular focus on women with disabilities. Having played professional basketball from age 18 until the incident in 2009 at 29 years old, she is passionate about promoting active rehabilitation for women who are disabled, especially those whose disability comes as the result of domestic violence.

Ms. Rebecca Kabugho (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Rebecca Kabugho is an activist in the LUCHA (Struggle for Change) citizen movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a context of great repression and braving everyday threats and the risk of arrest, Rebecca played a key role in a series of peaceful and non-violent demonstrations demanding the Congolese government (GDRC) hold credible elections in 2016 as required by the Congolese Constitution. In February 2016, Rebecca and five of her male colleagues were arrested and convicted of inciting civil disobedience while planning a peaceful demonstration calling on President Kabila to abide by the Constitution. Rebecca and her colleagues were sentenced and spent six months in a prison in Goma. During her detention, she was lauded by social media and the international press as the youngest prisoner of conscience in the world—she was only 22 years old when she was arrested. On December 19, 2016, Rebecca and 18 of her colleagues were arrested again in a peaceful demonstration demanding the resignation of the unconstitutional government before being released a week later. Through her courage, Rebecca has become one of the main activists of LUCHA and an inspiration for many young girls in her country. The organization continues to advocate positive change in the Congo through non-violent means.

Major Aichatou Ousmane Issaka (Niger)

Major Aichatou Ousmane Issaka is currently Deputy Director of Social Work at the Military Hospital of Niamey, after becoming one of the first women in Niger to join the army in 1996. She is also one of the first women in Niger to attend a military academy. Throughout her career, she attended several training courses on Social Work, International Humanitarian Law, Law and Protection of Children in Armed Conflict, and Gender Mainstreaming in Military Operations in many African and European countries. While being a wife and mother of three, Major Ousmane Issaka finds work-life balance between her daily responsibilities and her military tasks which often demand her to deploy on the ground. Danger does not stop Major Ousmane Issaka who has served throughout Niger, most recently in the Diffa Region, where the Boko Haram terrorist organization continues to threaten the population. Major Ousmane Issaka has taken a proactive leadership role in both Niger and most recently Mali where she was deployed within the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to integrate gender perspectives into peacekeeping activities. Due to her contributions, she received a distinction award from the United Nations (UN); she was awarded the UN’s first World Peace Prize for Military for gender equality in peacekeeping work within the UN force. Major Ousmane Issaka is a bright ray of hope for the Sahel. Her advocacy to raise awareness about gender sensitivities in conflict areas is a positive example to her military and Niger’s civil society.

EAST ASIAN AND PACIFIC AFFAIRS (EAP)

Ms. Veronica Simogun (Papua New Guinea)

Veronica Simogun (Papua New Guinea) – State Dept ImageVeronica Tamar Simogun is currently the Director of the Family for Change Association based in Wewak, East Sepik province, Papua New Guinea. Ms. Simogun was born in Urip village in the Boykin/Dagua area of Wewak, East Sepik Province in 1962. She studied at the Civil Aviation Training College and graduated with a Certificate in civil aviation in 1981. She worked with the Department of Civil Aviation for six years before moving back to her home village in 1986 to assist her church and community in the promotion of safe and healthy living. Ms. Simogun has been working to help women affected by violence ever since. In 2012, she formed the Family for Change Association, which she continues to run. Ms. Simogun’s life-long desire has been to see strong communities with happy families, where families are secure and women and children live free from violence and intimidation. Risking her own safety, she has directly intervened to protect women experiencing gender-based violence. In the face of death threats from the perpetrators of violence, she has helped shelter and relocate victims on multiple occasions. Ms. Simogun funds much of this work herself. She is married and has five children.

Ms. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (Vietnam)

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (Vietnam) holds a sign that reads ”I support Human Rights because: Only with Human Rights that we are able to empower our own individuals and our communities.” – State Dept ImageNguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh is a blogger and activist who has blogged extensively since 2006 on environmental and human rights issues in Vietnam, publishing principled arguments to inspire change and greater transparency. Ms. Quynh co-founded the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers, an independent writers association that encourages members to “protect people’s rights and freedoms from restrictions and censorship.” She was arrested on October 10, 2016 and has been held incommunicado since then under the charge of “conducting propaganda against the state.”

EUROPEAN AND EURASIAN AFFAIRS (EUR)

Ms. Saadet Ozkan (Turkey)

Saadet Ozkan is a former primary school teacher and a gender activist who has become a champion for victims child abuse. Born in 1978 in Izmir, Ms. Ozkan received undergraduate degrees in Public Relations and Communications from Anadolu University in Eskisehir in 1995, followed by a teaching degree in 2004. She deliberately chose to work in a village school, believing she could make a difference that way. After uncovering a decades-long pattern of sexual abuse in the school, she forced a criminal investigation of her principal, then persevered against pressure to drop the case. When a serious car accident left her bed-ridden for several months, she organized support from the Izmir Bar Association and the Turkish Confederation of Women’s Associations to help carry the case forward. She is now a private consultant still supporting the victims and their case, and hopes to establish an NGO that will fight child abuse. Ozkan is married with one son.

NEAR EASTERN AFFAIRS (NEA)

Ms. Jannat Al Ghezi (Iraq)

Jannat Al Ghezi and the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OFWI) take daily risks to help women escape violence and even death throughout Iraq by offering them shelter, training, protection, and legal services. OFWI has helped over 500 victims of rape or domestic abuse; Jannat’s role has been to coordinate the network of shelters for battered women. These shelters have been particularly helpful to countless Yazidi and other women from the Mosul area who suffered horribly under the brutal ISIL occupation of the area. Without help, many of these women would have ended up on the streets, subjected to human trafficking and threats of honor killing. OFWI provides these women the chance to have new lives by offering education and practical skills like sewing. Jannat understands how important this is because she was once a victim of domestic abuse and subjected to threats from her tribal family. OFWI helped her gain a new life when it encouraged her to complete her studies and follow her passion to help other women in need. She currently manages media relations at OFWI and serves as the editor of the Organization’s newspaper, Equality. For two years, she was the manager of Equality Radio.

Through OFWI, Jannat has also assisted women stranded in life-threatening situations by divorce, abandonment, and abuse from their spouses, many of whom did not have access to their travel documents because they were retained by their spouses. Some of these women were also U.S. citizens living in Iraq. Jannat made herself available to shelter these women 24/7 and she is willing to go wherever she is needed to help, no matter how dangerous. She is motivated by her wish that all women in Iraq who are victims of violence have their human rights protected.

Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh (Syria)

Sister Carol, as she is known, is a member of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. Born in Aleppo, Syria, Sister Carol has remained in Damascus throughout the war. She has put her life at risk to serve the people in this war-torn country and remains a beacon of hope. The nursery school she runs establishes a safe and friendly environment for more than 200 children, Muslim as well as Christian, many of whom have been traumatized by the events of the war. The tailoring workshop, a United Nations Human Rights Council program she manages, provides a much-needed supportive community to vulnerable internally displaced women. The women receive an income and a job prospect, as well as support for everyday needs. The first year, there were 14 pupils, today there are over 100, both Muslim and Christian. Many of them have fled from other parts of Syria and have lost everything. At the end of the year-long training, participants have two choices: they can start working at home with a sewing machine provided by the school, selling their own creations or they can seek employment in the school workshop and earn a salary. Sales profits help the school to buy food for needy families, including some of the pupils and their own families, and to pay for rent, medication, and hospital fees as needed. Sister Carol explains, “We sisters help everyone, giving our all and without making distinctions between Christian and Muslim, following Jesus’ example. Our work is also aided by volunteers and Muslim partners, good and generous people who work with such dedication. We feel deeply respected by them as well as by the entire population, including the army.”

Ms. Fadia Najib Thabet (Yemen)

As a Child Protection Officer who reported on violations against children in conflict during the recent conflicts in southern Yemen, Fadia Najib Thabet faced death on a regular basis as she tried to protect the region’s children from Al Qaeda and Houthi militias. Through her courageous work, she dissuaded young boys from joining Al Qaeda, exposed its Yemeni branch “Ansar al Sharia” as a recruiter of child soldiers, and documented for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) cases of mining, abduction, rape, and other human rights violations by various armed groups. Thabet took the view that children recruited by extremists and militants were not criminals, but instead, victims. She worked with parents, schools, communities, the children themselves, and eventually the UN to develop an action plan in southern Yemen to save children from the war. Thabet continues to work on behalf of dispossessed and uprooted children with the American Refugee Committee.

SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIAN AFFAIRS (SCA)

Ms. Sharmin Akter (Bangladesh)

At only 15 years of age, Sharmin Akter courageously resisted her mother’s attempts to marry her off and secured the precious right to continue her education, setting an example for teenage girls across South Asia facing similar pressures. Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage, a trend that threatens the health, safety and education of millions of girls and undermines the country’s progress. Sharmin demonstrated exceptional courage and self-possession by refusing to be coerced into marrying a man who is decades older. She dared to break the silence expected of women and girls and advocated for her rights, eventually bringing her mother and prospective husband to justice. Celebrated for her bravery, Sharmin today is a student at Rajapur Pilot Girls High School where she dreams of becoming a lawyer to campaign against the harmful tradition of early and forced marriage.

Ms. Sandya Eknelygoda (Sri Lanka)

Sandya Eknelygoda is a symbol of the search for justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Following the disappearance of her husband, journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, in 2010, Sandya made it her mission to fight for the families of the missing. As a result, Prageeth’s case has become a barometer of the government of Sri Lanka’s ability to restore the rule of law and accountability in fulfillment of its commitments under the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution it co-sponsored in October 2015. Sandya’s pursuit of justice is now in its seventh year. In that time, she has made over 90 court appearances, seeking information and resolution regarding her husband’s fate. Sandya has readily lent her voice to families of disappeared victims from Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, primarily in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Sandya has regularly traveled to these areas at considerable personal expense to meet with families of the missing and offer them advice and encouragement. Although Sandya comes from the majority Sinhalese community of southern Sri Lanka, she has been embraced by the Tamil people of the north as a symbol of the nation-wide search for justice and reconciliation. Sandya’s campaign is based upon her belief that “pursuing the truth is not a crime, protecting the perpetrators is.” She stands for all Sri Lankans who seek the truth regarding the disappeared.

WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS (WHA)

Ms. Natalia Ponce de Leon (Colombia)

Natalia Ponce de Leon created the Natalia Ponce de Leon Foundation in April 2015 to defend, promote, and protect the human rights of acid attack victims. Ponce de Leon’s life changed in March 2014 when a stalker threw a liter of sulfuric acid on her face and body. As Ponce de Leon would say, she was “reborn from the ashes” of that attack to become a symbol of perseverance and a living testimony to the restorative power of forgiveness. In her role as an activist, she fought for and achieved the passage of a law that increased penalties for attackers using chemical agents and required the Ministry of Health to improve training in hospital burn units for acid attack and other burn victims. The law, which bears her name, was passed on January 2016. She is now working closely with the National Institute of Legal Medicine to establish burn units throughout Colombia, ensuring burn victims receive the appropriate medical and psychological treatment. She continues to be an inspiration and an example of courage for all Colombians.

Ms. Arlette Contreras Bautista (Peru)

Arlette Contreras Bautista is a Peruvian activist, lawyer, and domestic violence survivor. Her case, captured on video, sparked nationwide outrage and unprecedented demonstrations in Peru against gender-based violence. Arlette refused to accept the one-year suspended sentence her attacker received for the lesser charge of assault, after the court dismissed the more serious charges of attempted murder and rape. She joined forces with other survivors of domestic violence, civil society organizations, and regular citizens to launch Peru’s grass roots “Not One Woman Less” movement. Arlette’s leadership and outspoken advocacy against domestic violence galvanized a peaceful protest march of over a hundred thousand people that flooded downtown Lima in August 2016. Her actions greatly increased social and political awareness in Peru about women’s rights and gender-based violence. Despite threats against herself and her family, Arlette continues to fight for justice, inspiring women throughout the country to stand up for their rights.