Ruslana Honored with International Women of Courage Award
Remarks by Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell, Dr. Vanessa Kerry, First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom
At the International Women of Courage Awards
March 4, 2014
AMBASSADOR RUSSELL: Good morning, everyone. Mrs. Obama, Deputy Secretary Higginbottom, all of your excellencies with us today, distinguished guests, it’s my pleasure to welcome all of you to the Department of State for the eighth annual presentation of the Secretary of State’s International Woman of Courage Awards. We’re delighted to have you here today to celebrate the 103th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which we mark every year by recognizing women who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk.
Secretary Kerry, unfortunately, is unable to join us today, because the President asked him to travel to the Ukraine, but he asked two very important people to represent him here, and we are so grateful to have them. The first is Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, who, along with the First Lady, will recognize our amazing women of courage. And the second is Dr. Vanessa Kerry, who is the cofounder and CEO of Seed Global Health, which is an NGO working in collaboration with the Peace Corps to improve healthcare in resource-limited countries. Dr. Kerry, we’re so happy to have you here to offer your thoughts on what investing in women and girls means to you and to your father. Thank you so much. (Applause.)
DR. KERRY: Thank you so much for letting me join you today. I’m a poor substitute for my father, and I – he deeply regrets that he can’t be here. But I personally am very, very delighted to be able to play a small part in honoring these inspiring women with you all. I’m also incredibly honored that my father asked me to be included, because I know this an event that he really deeply appreciates. After his first International Women of Courage Award event last year, he was really looking forward to being back here to celebrate another group of extraordinary women with extraordinary women, like our own First Lady. And unfortunately – well, for many reasons, unfortunately – my father is in Kiev, trying to hopefully help avert what is a growing disaster.
All of these women have had a profound impact on my father’s life, and that’s why advancing the rights of women and girls has been a priority for him throughout his career, and it’s why it remains a priority for him today, whether he’s here with us in this room or is in Kiev.
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you all. Well, good morning. […] I know how disappointed Secretary Kerry is to miss this event – by the way, in his busy schedule, he tried to call me five times to apologize. (Laughter.) And finally, I had to tell him, “I know why you can’t make it.” (Laughter.) “Stop calling. Just do your job.” He – I know how heartbroken he is, but we all know that he is doing vitally important work right now in Ukraine and we are all so grateful for his outstanding service as our Secretary of State.
This is the sixth time that I’ve had the pleasure of attending this event, and it is one of the highlights of my year because I always walk away feeling inspired by these women, determined to reflect their courage in my own life. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling because every day, with every life they touch and every spirit they raise, these women are creating ripples that stretch across the globe. They teach us that if a woman can fight torture and oppression and get her name on the ballot in Tajikistan, if she can break a glass ceiling and advocate for equality and tolerance as a bishop in Georgia, if she can go door to door, police station to police station, court to court to combat domestic and child abuse in Saudi Arabia – if these women can do all of that, then surely we can summon a fraction of their bravery in our own lives and communities, whether that means ending wage discrimination in the workplace or fighting sexual violence on college campuses or confronting any of the small injustices that we see every day.
That is what this day is about. It’s about understanding that while our circumstances may be different in so many ways, the solutions to our struggles are the same. So when we see these women raise their voices and move their feet and empower others to create change, we need to realize that each of us has that same power and that same obligation. And as I learned about this year’s honorees and I thought about how we could support their work, I realized that for most of these women, there is a common foundation for their efforts. It’s a foundation of education.
On stage today, we have doctors and lawyers, we have a bishop, even a classically trained musician. These women have spent years in schools and universities equipping themselves with the knowledge and skills they now use to tackle the challenges before them. And that’s a story I can relate to because it’s the story of my life. And that is the message I’m sharing with young people across America, urging them to commit to their education so that they too can write their own destiny. That’s the core idea behind our White House leadership and mentoring program.
And we are so proud to have some our mentees here with us today. I’m going to embarrass you all. Yes, you must stand – (laughter) – so that we can see you, our young women who are here today. (Applause.) You know I’m always proud of you and it’s important, as you know, for you to be at this event to see what’s happening around the world, so welcome.
And as I travel the world, whether I’m in Mexico City or Johannesburg, Mumbai, or later this month when I travel to China, I make it a priority to talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations. I always tell them that getting a good education isn’t just about knowing what’s going on in your own community or even in your own country, because no matter where we live, we all face so many of the same struggles – fighting poverty, hunger and disease; ensuring our most basic rights and freedoms; confronting threats like terrorism and climate change. And in order to solve these problems, we will need to work with others around the world. So our next generation will need exposure to societies and languages and traditions that are very different from their own.
That message of cultural exchange is the focus of all of my international travel, because that connection – the idea that a girl in Dakar shares the same hopes and dreams as a girl from Fiji or Ukraine or the South Side of Chicago – that reminds us that we’re never alone in our struggles. And that’s what must compel us to reach beyond our own borders, whether that means getting on an airplane or picking up an iPad or maybe simply writing a letter. There is too much work left to be done, too many young people who can’t go to school, too many families struggling to put food on the table, too many women and minorities who are excluded and oppressed.
So none of us can afford to just go about our business as usual. We cannot just sit back and think this is someone else’s problem. As one of our honorees, Zimbabwe’s Beatrice Mtetwa, as she once said about the fight for progress in her home country, she said, “This has to be done. Somebody’s got to do it, and why shouldn’t it be you?” That is the courage we celebrate today; that willingness to not only ask that question but to devote your soul, your entire soul, toward finding an answer; that fearlessness to step forward even though you don’t know what lies ahead; that audacity to believe that principles like justice and equality can become a reality, but only if we’re willing to sacrifice for it. That is the courage that we all must challenge ourselves to summon every single day in our own families, in our own communities. And if we can do that, then we won’t just be making a difference for those closest to us, we’ll be creating a ripple effect of our own.
So I want to thank these honorees once again for their tremendous bravery, for their efforts, for their courage, for their work to make change in their own lives and communities and throughout the world. I cannot wait to see the impact you will continue to make in the years ahead. God bless you all. (Applause.)
And now it is my pleasure to turn the podium back over to Ambassador Russell to continue the program.
DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGGINBOTTOM: Our goal is simple and it’s one that President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and the entire State Department are deeply committed to: We want to see full participation of women in the economic, social, and political lives of their countries. You only have to look around the room today to see how strong women make the world a better place. International Women’s Day reminds us that we all have a responsibility to protect the health, education, welfare, human rights of women and girls so their inherent strength can be realized. Because in too many places around the world there are people who try to hamstring that strength, to limit the opportunities women and girls have to meet their goals.
The women on this stage are working hard to change that, and their stories prove that legal hurdles, threats, and even violence are no match for a woman of courage. It is now my honor to introduce to you these extraordinary women.
Our first honoree is Ruslana Lyzhychko of Ukraine. Ruslana is a pop music singer who became famous after she won the 2003 EuroVision song contest. But today, she is known instead for her commitment to the EuroMaidan community. As the peaceful protests emerged following President Yanukovych’s decision to reject an association agreement with the European Union, Ruslana joined the demonstrations, spending her days on streets and her nights sleeping in cold tents. And every evening, in the face of impending police attacks and death threats, she performed the Ukrainian national anthem for the other demonstrators to reinforce the promise of a diverse and unified Ukraine.
One night last December, as Ruslana sang, rumors of an impending security sweep by the Ukrainian riot police began to spread, sending panic through the crowd. Ruslana held the stage and urged protestors to retain their calmness and composure. And when the government forces arrived to the scene, she reminded them over and over again to respect human rights and refrain from violence.
Anyone who was there that night will tell you how her rallying cries steadied the nerves of the protestors, giving them the courage they needed to successfully withstand more than 2,000 riot police. They will tell you how crowds cheered as eventually the police retreated from a standoff that was intense but ultimately peaceful. And they will tell you how that night will go down in history as one of the EuroMaidan movement’s most amazing displays of unity and determination.
For her steadfast commitment to nonviolent resistance and national unity in the fight against government corruption and human rights abuses, we name Ruslana Lyzhychko a Woman of Courage. (Applause.)