Three months after a young Indian woman died from her injuries after a brutal gang-rape on a Delhi bus—and three days after an American tourist fell victim to a similar sexual attack in Rio de Janeiro—the presenters and honorees at the 12th annual Vital Voices Global Leadership awards, including former secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, delivered an overriding message: the violence against women must end.
The awards, which took place on Tuesday night at Washington, D.C.’s grand Kennedy Center, honored eight human-rights heroes and heroines, global leaders, and moral warriors from Somalia to Palestine. Among the recipients this year were Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who narrowly escaped assassination by the Taliban over her campaign to educate schoolgirls, and Dr. Hawa Abdi, whose refugee camp has become a symbol of resistance in Somalia’s lawless countryside.
Throughout the ceremony, the disturbing and ongoing reality of violence against women and girls—in the form of bullets, domestic beatings, economic intimidation and sexual exploitation—coursed through the stories of the honorees, who urged the audience to fight back. Presenting the Global Trailblazer Award in absentia to Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Islamic militants for demanding the right to go to school and whose fate inspired her fellow Pakistanis to speak out, Vital Voices co-founder Alyse Nelson noted that “one voice, even the voice of a young girl, has the power to ignite a movement.”
As another target of militants, Abdi—who accepted the Fern Holland Award from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof—talked about her experience running a medical clinic turned refugee camp that now shelters some 90,000 people, a full 1 percent of Somalia’s population. Abdi and her nurses have been routinely threatened by the country’s Islamic militias—and even taken hostage—and the camp exists in a state of constant peril. Still, Abdi spoke of a brighter future for her country and for its women, one in which machine guns and gangs would be replaced by schoolchildren and jobs. “I want to let the world know that we will continue to empower women and children through opportunity and education,” she told the audience. “I have always hoped to see a peaceful Somalia—I hope that you will continue to stand with me for peace.”
Cambodia’s Tep Vanny, the recipient of the Leadership in Public Life Award, is fighting a different kind of violence: the rape and pillage of her land by big corporations. When her local Boeung Kak Lake was threatened by developers, Vanny rallied her community to resist the plan. In May 2012 she and 12 other women were sentenced to jail for peacefully demonstrating outside of a government building in Phnom Penh—but instead of backing down, they soon amassed more than a thousand protesters to march on the ASEAN and East Asia Summits last year. Speaking of Vanny’s courage in standing up to powerful interests to protect Cambodia’s ecological resources, presenter and actress America Ferrera noted, “They didn’t think the people of Boeung Kak were strong enough or brave enough ... they didn’t bank on the women.”
Halfway across the world, Palestinian businesswoman Manal Zraiq lives in a land where violence is a constant specter, and where economic opportunities—for all residents, but especially for women—are few and far between. Receiving her award from presenter Ann Curry, who described Zraiq as a woman who dared to believe “that if women worked together, they could amplify their impact and help drive economic growth,” the entrepreneur dedicated the honor to “Palestine and the women working for economic opportunity there.”
Poverty and unemployment often go hand and hand with higher rates of violence against women—as the Kant brothers know well. The three siblings run Shakti Vahini, an organization that works to protect India’s women and children from the vast sexual trafficking networks that snake across Asia. Making their introduction, Vice President Joe Biden moved the audience with an impassioned plea: “We have to let women and girls around the world know they’re not alone. That’s our task, that’s our challenge.” The Kant brothers, he said, “understand that as men, they have a responsibility to stand up and be engaged.” Brothers Ravi, Nishi, and Rishi delivered one of the most inspiring lines of the night when they declared, “The traffickers are strong—they have expensive lawyers, they can bribe police. But they can’t bribe me.”
Their message was echoed by Sandra Gomes Melo, who was presented with the night’s Human Rights Award by Newsweek/Daily Beast executive editor Tina Brown. As a lawyer in Brazil, where 10 women lose their lives to domestic violence every day, Melo has fought to bring offenders to justice and to help rehabilitate female prisoners and give them a chance at a better life after jail. With the specter of the recent Brazilian gang-rape ever present, Melo pointed out that “violence is not only a problem for the victims or the police—it’s a problem for the community, for the world.” Addressing the men and women present, she issued a rallying cry: “We all have the responsibility to say, ‘We will not tolerate violence against women.’ I know everyone in this room will use our voices.”
Among the evening’s highlights was the appearance of two luminaries who have tirelessly used their voices to protect women’s rights around the globe: former secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former global ambassador-at-large for women’s issues, and Vital Voices co-founder, Melanne Verveer. Clinton honored Verveer—her longtime friend and colleague—with a special tribute for her longstanding commitment to Clinton’s famous 1995 Beijing mantra that “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” Verveer, who now heads up the new Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, sounded a hopeful note, despite the ongoing challenges to secure women’s rights and safety: “The women of Vital Voices are ushering in a new spring,” she said, “one of opportunity and peace.”