First established in March 2007, the annual Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award honors women around the world who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in acting to bring positive change to their societies, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Meet this year’s award recipients:
L’Malouma Said (Mauritania)
L’Malouma Said was born into slavery in 1972 in the far south-eastern town of Boutilmitt in Mauritania. When she was seventeen years old, she was a leading activist at her school for the emancipation of Haratines. Before becoming one of only four Haratine women elected as deputy (Member of Parliament) to the Mauritanian National Assembly in 2006 and again in 2013, she was the president of a cooperative of women traders. She was also officer in charge of women within the El Hor movement (Movement for the liberation of Haratines in Mauritania) as well as a founding member of the Mauritanian anti-slavery organization S.O.S. Esclaves, currently led by her husband Boubacar Messaoud. Said is well known for speaking out on human rights issues and her powerful national and international advocacy for the improvement of prisons in Mauritania. She believes Mauritania’s prisoners suffer from a lack of social and educational opportunities, as well as poor safety and health conditions, leading to escape attempts and the spread of diseases among the prison population. Said has a long history of defending human rights and equality, as well as the fight against all forms of discrimination in Mauritania. She is a vocal leader on these issues within the Mauritanian Parliament. She has proven herself to be a courageous woman with a history of commitment, determination, and perseverance in defending human rights issues during her two terms in the parliament.
Godelieve Mukasarasi (Rwanda)
Godelieve Mukasarasi dedicated her life after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide to fighting for a culture of peace and non-violence in Rwanda, as well as promoting the rights of women and girls affected by sexual violence in conflict zones worldwide. Founder and Coordinator of the organization Solidarité pour l’Épanouissement des Veuves et des Orphelins visant le Travail et l’Auto promotion/Solidarity for the Development of Widows and Orphans to Promote Self-Sufficiency and Livelihoods (SEVOTA), Mukasarasi works with communities across Rwanda to reset human, social, and economic relations destroyed during the Genocide. In 1996, she was approached by the United Nations team putting together the case against former Mayor of Taba Jean-Paul Akayesu for his role in the Genocide. Overcoming intimidation by community members and the murder of her daughter and husband, likely for her decision to testify at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, she mobilized four members of SEVOTA to testify against Akayesu. Although rape has been considered an international war crime since 1919, it had never been prosecuted as a war crime until the conviction of Akayesu. These women’s actions, through Mukasarasi’s leadership, changed the world of criminal justice forever, giving women who were sexually assaulted in conflicts a voice and access to justice. Since 1994, SEVOTA has reached over 300 genocide rape victims and helped them to reintegrate socially and economically into their communities. They have organized more than 1,300 households to participate in micro-savings clubs and 2,000 youth and children in peace and development clubs. Mukasarasi is truly a woman of courage, and has been an important figure in the peace and reconciliation of Rwanda and the protection of women and children across the globe. Mukasarasi received the John Humphrey Freedom Award by Law & Democracy (2004); the Outstanding Achievement Award for Rural Women’s Creativity Award from the World Women’s Summit Foundation in Geneva (1996); and, SEVOTA was honored with the Award for Human Rights for its contribution to the promotion of the rights of vulnerable women by Human Right International (2011).
Sister Maria Elena Berini (Italy)
Nominated by the U.S. Embassy in the Holy See, Sister Maria Elena Berini was born on December 9, 1944 in Sondrio, Italy. When she was 15, she dropped out of school to work in a textile factory to help her father support their family of six. There, she discovered firsthand the difficult working conditions for laborers, as well as a strong sense of worker solidarity. Out of a deep commitment to service, at the age of 19, she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Jeanne Anthide Thouret. From 1963 to 1969 she undertook religious, biblical, theological, and teacher training. She became a children’s teacher, but felt a calling to go to Africa. In 1972, she went to Chad where she discovered a love for the people, their traditions, culture, language, and religion. She also witnessed war, hate, injustice, and “indescribable horrors.” She continued her work in rural “bush” schools until 2007, when her congregation sent her to the Central African Republic (CAR). Sister Maria Elena has been working at the Catholic mission in Bocaranga, CAR since then and lived through the war in 2013 and 2014. Most recently, in February and September 2017, the rebel movement “TROIS R” attacked Bocaranga. Thousands of internally displaced people fled their homes and sought shelter at Sister Maria Elena’s mission, where they were welcomed and given refuge. Sister Maria Elena remains hopeful that peace in the CAR is possible.