Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, Henriette Ekwe Ebongo, and Maria Bashir On the 2011 International Women of Courage Awards
March 8, 2011
MS. FULTON: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. I'm pleased to greet you today on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. As you know, today, Secretary of State Clinton has hosted the 2011 International Women of Courage Awards here at the Department with a special guest, First Lady Michelle Obama. This is a prestigious award for International Women of Courage that annually recognizes women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women's rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk.
So to tell you a little bit more about the event today, the awards, and to - about their own personal stories, we have today a special press briefing with Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, and we have the two 2011 International Women of Courage Awards honorees, Henriette Ekwe Ebongo, journalist and publisher of Bebela from Cameroon, and Maria Bashir, prosecutor general from Herat Province in Afghanistan.
So with that, I'd like to turn it over to Ambassador Verveer.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Thank you so much. Good afternoon, everybody. We've just come from the ceremony marking the hundredth anniversary of International Women's Day, and also having Secretary Clinton and the First Lady bestow the International Courage Awards on remarkable women who were honored today. There were 10 honorees. Two could not come because they were not allowed to leave their countries, Belarus and Cuba. The others were all here, and among them was the president of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbayeva.
As you just heard, I have with me two additional of the honorees - one from Afghanistan, Maria Bashir, who is a general - a prosecutor general in the attorney general's office in Herat Province. Banned from working during the Taliban regime, she served her community secretly by teaching sisters and local girls at home despite the risks of great reprisal. She regained her position as an investigative prosecutor, and in 2006, was appointed prosecutor general for Herat, the only woman to ever hold such a position in Afghan history. Her high-profile work and relentless pursuit of justice has come at tremendous personal cost. Her house was set on fire, a bomb exploded in her front yard, and her own life and her children's lives have been threatened in endless Taliban night letters. But despite all these threats, she has waged a determined campaign against crime and corruption, and she stands out as a champion of judicial transparency and women's rights.
Also here, we have a fellow journalist for all of you, a political activist from Cameroon. She is one of the most experienced and influential female journalists in her country. Henriette Ebongo has spent a lifetime advancing press freedom, freedom of expression, human rights, good governance, and gender equality. From the struggle against the dictatorship in 1980 to the struggle against corruption and injustice in recent years, she has refused to be silenced, standing up for justice and the rule of law. She has paid a price, she has been imprisoned, she has been threatened, but she goes on in her commitment to the great democratic values.
I just want to say additionally that this morning, in addition to the First Lady joining the Secretary, we also had the prime minister of Australia. She made an announcement - the first female prime minister in Australia - she made an announcement and talked about the value of education. Her announcement had to do with a commitment of additional resources to educate girls in Afghanistan. And additional to that, there was an announcement from the Goldman Sachs Foundation. They've got a program called 10,000 Women which helps educate women entrepreneurs with world class business and management training.
And they announced a hundred scholarships, first of which will be deployed to help women in Indonesia and Haiti, and these will be in conjunction, working with our embassies to target women for this specialized training, given the role that women play as accelerators of economic growth, particularly women running small and medium-sized businesses, who often face great barriers yet are critical in driving GDP in their countries.
So that is the sum of the event we just participated in, and now I will ask our two honorees to please come up here, and each of them may want to say a few words. Henriette, you might just want to say a little bit, and then Maria, and then we'll open it to questions.
MS. EBONGO: Okay. Thank you, good afternoon. I'm a journalist from Central Africa - Cameroon, as you heard. And we have many problems in my country of democracy, free and fair elections, and corruption, public funds embezzlements. And the American Embassy has done a lot. At the beginning of the democratization period, they were part of the process, and then they were the one who laid (inaudible) pressures on the government to put some ministers and general managers of big companies under arrest. So I've been doing this while - in spite of repression, torture, being taken to the military court and all these things. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Maria?
MS. BASHIR: (Via interpreter) My name is Maria Bashir. And as it was mentioned in my biography, I'm from the Province of Herat. I work for - I'm a prosecutor, and you probably have some information. As I said, it was mentioned before, but I will be happy to - if you have any questions, I would be happy to share it with you about the situation and the plight of the Afghan women.
MS. FULTON: Okay. With that, we'll open it up for questions, please.
QUESTION: This is for Maria Bashir. Can you give us a sense of the condition of women in Afghanistan, post-Taliban era? And also, as the reconciliation movement is going on, the peace jirga, what role the woman has been given so far?
MS. BASHIR: (Via interpreter) The situation of women in Afghanistan is improving in spite of a lot of challenges that we do face. Of course, the challenges still remain, but I can tell you that the - a large number of presence of women in parliament and also having access to education, for higher education and all of public education for a lot of girls and women, and employment for the government (inaudible) offices, are - some of you are optimistic. We are hopeful. As I said, of course, challenges still remain, but the situation is improving.
The situation, of course, it still remains a little bit vague and not that clear when it comes to the re-constellation, as you mentioned before, about the Afghan women plight and situation. But one thing is that what is the wish of the Afghan Government and something - that it has to be also, the rules and regulations of the constitution of Afghanistan needs to be fulfilled and implemented and remain. And so this is - of course, the situation is we are optimistic, but at the same times, I know that the challenges still remain, and we have to see.
MS. FULTON: Next question.
QUESTION: If I may, I want to put the question in Dari, so she can understand and answer to it. (Speaking in Dari.)
MS. FULTON: If you wouldn't mind, would you give us the translation?
INTERPRETER: Sure. The question is - was the - the first question is that because - since, Ms. Bashir, you are working in the province of Herat and you are working as a prosecutor, what are some of the cases that you are working on? And if you give me a specific cases, this is what - what is the biggest problem and challenges?
And also, at the same time, so how are you feeling? What is the - this award - what does this award mean to you and how you're sentimentally feeling about receiving this award?
QUESTION: And how we are going to help you in working?
INTERPRETER: And at the same time, how it helps you?
MS. BASHIR: (Via interpreter) Of course, being a prosecutor as a woman, it is a challenging and daunting task. I'm not denying that one. But - and mostly I'm focusing on - our office is focusing on corruption, on eliminating violence against women, and at the same time we are trying to reach out to a lot of families and women. And as I said that it is challenging, but hopefully we will be relentless and we will be trying so hard to make sure that we be able to accomplish, and we are optimistic in that regard.
This award was indeed an inspiration for me, and being a mother that I have my daughter and this will be something that will be an inspiration for my daughter. And we are very much thankful from the State Department for providing us this opportunity or give us this kind of recognition that it's very important for women of courage to be determined, to be - their work to be known around the world. And this is something that I will cherish and I am very much - I have a lot of sentimental and emotional feelings about this one, and thank you very much.
MS. FULTON: Next question, Goyal.
QUESTION: How much is the President Karzai's government is doing as far as the women's condition is concerned despite all the threats from the Taliban? And finally, how do you feel the conditions of the women after the NATO or the U.S. forces leave, so when they're talking about they might leave next year? Do you feel more threats after they leave, or do you want them to stay?
MS. BASHIR: (Via interpreter) Answering your first question is the Government of Afghanistan relatively has been trying to help the plight and condition of the Afghan women. But I could - at the same time, I would like to point out that, unfortunately, what a lot of promises that were given, all of them have not been fulfilled, either by the international community or by the Afghan Government. And part of it also is due because of the lack of security and stability that currently Afghanistan is experiencing.
Answering your second question, yes, we do Afghan women feel alarmed about this idea of leaving the NATO forces - their withdrawal from Afghanistan. But we are hoping that as long as the constitution of Afghanistan is being observed, as long as we do strengthen our Afghan National Army and the police, army, and also the Afghan National Police and the rule of law and some other institutions of the government, that, of course, would be something that is very important and we will be able to stand on our own feet. But right now, we are talking about pulling or withdrawal of the NATO forces. The Afghan women are alarmed and they all have some kind of concerns.
MS. FULTON: Next question.
QUESTION: My question is to you, Madam Ambassador. Regarding Iran, how does the Project for Women can help and what challenges have you faced, especially with regarding the representative from Iran, did you have any challenges, any difficulty? Who took part?
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: We did not have anyone from Iran. There were 10 honorees that were selected from almost 90 nominations from our embassies around the world. Obviously, we are deeply concerned about the situation for women in Iran, which manifests itself every day. But at this point, we haven't been able to have any of those kinds of direct links except through others who are working there.
QUESTION: (inaudible) attend the conference?
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: The attendees were the honorees who were selected. There was not one from every country. The embassies nominated, and we had almost 90 submissions, and of those, 10 were selected women of remarkable courage, which is not to say that there aren't women in every country who deserve this award - and certainly in Iran, there are many - but we based it on the nominations that we got through our embassies.
MS. FULTON: Next question.
QUESTION: I want to ask a question to the lady of Cameroon.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Henriette.
MS. EBONGO: Yes.
QUESTION: Following the reports about the situation that's going in Cote d'Ivoire, that we heard about terrible, terrible situations there of repression, and also considering what's going in the North of Africa, in all these countries like Libya, what's your message to all the women that are in those territories that are suffering this kind of repression? How do you feel about this? What can you tell us, especially what's going on in this moment in those countries?
MS. EBONGO: Well, the people of Cameroon is interested in what is going on in Maghreb and Egypt, because we did this 20 years ago. We had this movement of the ghost towns, which lasted six months. And still, I think that our government was supported by France. We didn't - the opposition didn't succeed. And what is going on is that young - the youth are prepared to continue these kinds of street demonstrations.
But about women, there is a special problem in Cameroon because women were really involved at the beginning of the democratic process. But when it came to elections, the men will take all the good positions to be elected, and women were not represented. And now we have 180 MPs at a national assembly, only 22 women's. So in spite of the Beijing Conference and Beijing+5 in New York, nothing has changed really in the representation of women.
And many women walk out of political parties to create NGOs because they were encouraged by the partners to development, the donors, IMF and the World Bank, and the system of the United Nations, who as - who have decided that the gender issue will be an important one for development and for help, for aid and loans and so on.
So these women thought that they were more respected in NGOs in the civil society. So they are no longer outstanding women in political parties. They are just there to applause, to dance sometimes. And as one of the leader of the opposition party in that times, we had many problems to bring women in for political education. We had problem with the IMF, and we wanted - we'll bring up experts, and they won't come to the talk. And so many women are most interested in running their own business, but the rise of women - they don't give a damn for that, really.
MS. FULTON: I think we have time for one final question.
QUESTION: Yes. My name is (inaudible) from DRC. I've got two questions. The first one goes to Mrs. Ambassador. While we're celebrating today the International Courage Woman Award, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, four more women has been raped. You recently traveled in the Congo. What is your message to all those women right now? And also, what is the position of the United States for all those people who are continuously committed all these crime against woman?
And the second question goes to Madam Henriette. It's almost the same question, but I would like her to send a message to all the Congolese women, but I wanted to say it in French if possible. (Speaking in French.) Thank you.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: It is indeed a very difficult situation in the DRC. I was back there about two weeks ago, following up on Secretary Clinton's trip of last June. There has been a considerable effort being made by the United States Government as well as work in conjunction with multilateral organizations like the UN and other countries to address many of the challenges, and there are many.
And so we have been working on a wide range of issues that have to be addressed that include the security questions, ensuring that the soldiers are properly trained, ensuring that - through the United Nations that the MONUSCO force is indeed deployed in a way that protects the civilians. And as you said, we keep seeing these attacks of unprotected women. Working to strengthen the NGOs, there is a deep feeling among the women - and I've spent a lot of time in the eastern part of the country as well as in Kinshasa - to resource and enable the NGOs who are filled with talent, many women who are fully capable of making a difference, even including those who want to go from their pain to exerting their power, to really, in solidarity, begin to address their immediate problems. Working with them and through others, other NGOs, to provide the full range of services to deal, obviously, with the consequences of what they're going through, but beyond that, to help give them the skills and the empowerment that they need to be able to address some of these issues.
The justice system is anemic at best. We have been doing considerable work with the DRC in hopes of getting a mixed chamber system established. Beyond that, there have been some recent positive developments in terms of apprehending some of those soldiers who were involved in the New Year's Day brutality in Fizi, and some of the top commanders, whom the Secretary mentioned when she was in the DRC. A regimen in terms of the conflict minerals - there is action on every button, if you will, that has to be pushed to be able to bring about the kind of change and end to this conflict, and most particularly, in terms of the political discussions within the country and regionally.
And of course, there is an election coming up, and I think it will be very important to ensure that it's a free and fair election, that citizens can vote safely, that they're not intimidated and undermined in that process. And that has got to be something that gains not only considerable attention and support from us in terms of civic participation, but from the broader international community. So there are a range of challenges, all of which we are really working very hard to try, in some way, to address so that we don't have an ongoing situation that you just described.
MS. EBONGO: Thank you. (Speaking in French.) Thank you. It happens to be that the gender coordination for IFJ, International Federation of Journalists for Central Africa, and the federation of unions in Central Africa is leaded by a Congolese from the DRC, Mr. (inaudible). So I work with female journalists, and we have all these informations on rapes in the eastern part of your country. I think that what I can say as a message is that the women must continue to organize. I know that they are really organizing themselves in the field of journalism, civil society. There are many, many associations and NGOs who are very, very dynamic. And I think that they should be help and supported by the international community to put an end to these massive rapes.
Of course, I'm a woman. There has never been a big civil war in my country since the years of the liberation movement for independence of Cameroon. But I know what is going on in DRC and in other countries, where woman is a - the women are the first victims of civil wars. So - (Speaking in French.)
MS. FULTON: Thank you so much. I'd like to thank Ambassador Verveer and our International Women of Courage honorees today for spending some time with us. This concludes the briefing and will be followed momentarily by the Daily Press Briefing with Assistant Secretary Crowley.
MR. CROWLEY: Right behind you.
MS. FULTON: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.