(WASHINGTON, D.C.) — First lady Jill Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday hosted the 17th annual International Women of Courage Awards — and for the first time, the ceremony took place at the White House, on “the biggest stage we could,” Biden said.
The pair honored 11 global women leaders — some from countries embroiled in crisis — to mark International Women’s Day and recognize those with “exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.” Since 2007, the State Department has given out the courage awards to more than 180 women from more than 80 countries.
“Today, we’re here to tell girls everywhere the truth that they need to hear: Yes, you matter. Yes, you can make a difference,” Biden said at the White House’s East Room.
“That’s why we wanted to bring the leaders we’re honoring today, and the stories that they share, to the biggest stage we could: The White House. And, Tony, thank you for helping us do that,” she said.
The 2023 event honored Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, who led a volunteer unit of paramedics in Ukraine and spent three months in Russian captivity after getting detained in Mariupol for attempting to evacuate women and children in the wake of Russia’s invasion.
Earlier on Wednesday, the White House released a statement from President Joe Biden to mark the day. He noted the gender abuses in conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan and Ukraine.
“Despite decades of progress, in far too many places around the world, the rights of women and girls are still under attack, holding back entire communities,” he said.
“We see it in Afghanistan, where the Taliban bars women and girls from attending school and pursuing employment. We see it in Iran, where the regime is brutally repressing the voices of women who are courageously standing up for their freedom. And in the face of Russia’s vicious and unjust invasion of Ukraine, including the use of rape as a weapon of war, we see countless stories of women bravely fighting for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Ukrainians,” he continued.
At Wednesday’s ceremony, Jill Biden applauded Blinken’s leadership in addressing foreign crises like in Ukraine, and Blinken highlighted the administration’s work to push forward gender equality abroad.
“President Biden has made gender equality and women’s rights a priority of our foreign policy,” Blinken remarked, nodding to the creation of the “first ever” cross-government strategy on women’s global economic security, a gender policy council and updated strategies to respond to gender-based violence globally, including new efforts to expand access to programs for historically marginalized communities.
Other honorees at the courage awards included independent Ethiopian journalist Meaza Mohammed, who has been covering gender-focused violence in the country; Zakira Hekmat, an Afghan doctor and advocate who grew up and was secretly educated under Taliban rule; and Doris Ríos, an indigenous rights leader from Costa Rica, among others.
The Madeleine Albright Honorary Group Award went to the women and girl protestors of Iran who embarked on months of grassroots demonstrations across Iran’s 31 provinces following the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman taken into custody for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab.
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“Women in all of their diversity are often the ones on the front lines of change. And yet at the same time, they face still greater obstacles to their political participation,” Blinken said Wednesday.
“Defending the rights of women and girls is rooted in our democratic values of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, the State Department marked International Women’s Day by announcing coordinated action with its allies intended to “to promote accountability for the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses,” particularly against women and girls in the wake of the death of Amini.
Blinken announced sanctions against two Iranian officials overseeing prisons in Iran which he alleged were complicit in the gross mistreatment of prisoners, two senior Iranian security leaders who he said ordered the detention and torture of protestors, three companies that supply Iranian law enforcement & their CEOS, and another high-ranking law enforcement officer in the country for imposing censorship policies.
Jill Biden closed her Wednesday remarks with a call for accountability of men to uphold gender-based freedoms.
“As much as we need women who are willing to speak up, we need more men who are willing to listen and act,” she said.
“We need more men to hold each other accountable when their sisters are being hurt or left behind. We need more men who nurture families, who feed and teach and mentor, who build safer communities. We need more men who know that caring, collaboration, and kindness are signs of strength, not weakness.”
ABC News’ Shannon Crawford contributed to this report.
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