Vital Voices Celebrates Women Leaders Worldwide
WRITTEN BY DANA MCKELVEY, DC CORRESPONDENT | 15 JUNE 2012
On June 6th, the international NGO Vital Voices presented its annual Global Leadership Awards at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center. An organization renowned for its educational and financial support of female leaders worldwide, Vital Voices celebrated this year’s awards along with the launch of a new book written by the organization’s Global Partnership President and CEO, Alyse Nelson – Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World. The book’s foreword by Secretary Hilary Clinton, as well as Hilary Clinton’s annual appearance at the Global Leadership Awards, attests to the NGO’s legitimacy and far-reaching potential. Although Secretary Clinton could not make it to this year’s ceremony, her daughter Chelsea Clinton presented an award in her stead, accompanied by other famous activists, journalists, and politicians.
The event kicked off on Tuesday evening at the House of Sweden on the Georgetown waterfront, where speakers such as Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, lauded Nelson for her contributions to the organization. During Nelson’s time as President of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, the organization has expanded its network to include over 12,000 women leaders in 44 countries. Ambassador Verveer stated, “I’m very proud of Alyse,” and relayed the story of Nelson’s travels to the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Bejing, where she heard Hillary Clinton’s famous declaration, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” Verveer attested that Nelson “told herself that day she would dedicate the rest of her life to helping women around the world, and she has truly done that.”
Ambassador Verveer also thanked the Swedish Embassy for hosting the event, noting that the majority of the Swedish cabinet is female, and that “the equality between men and women in Sweden on an array of issues, from economic participation to political to access to education” makes it “one of the most prosperous countries as well, because we know that where there is great gender equality, there is a better outcome for everybody.” Following Ambassador Verveer’s speech, previous Global Leadership award recipient Inez McCormack of Ireland commented on the humility she felt before a room full of powerful women, namely, fellow Global Leadership honorees, Vital Voices executives, and social entrepreneurship and non-profit pioneers.
The following evening’s event at the Kennedy Center Opera House also included appearances by illustrious women — and a few illustrious men. Wolf Blitzer of CNN joined an impressive group of female award presenters: Susan Ann Davis, Chair of the Board at Vital Voices; Diane von Furstenberg, former Princess of Furstenberg and fashion designer; U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison; Andrea Mitchell of NBC; Tina Brown of Newsweek and The Daily Beast; Carol Lancaster, Dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University; Chelsea Clinton; and Mariane Pearl, a freelance journalists and columnist for Glamour.
More striking than the ceremony’s presenters, however, were the award recipients. The nine honorees at the Global Leadership Awards, representing Liberia, Mexico, Samoa, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, simultaneously incorporate and overcome their culture’s traditions in order to promote change. (Read more about the recipients here.) Although differentiated by their causes, their class, and their nationality, their views converge at internationally recognized notions of justice and equality. As Chelsea Clinton explained in her presentation of the Fern Holland Tribute, women’s empowerment is an issue affecting both sexes and certainly not limited to certain cultures. In reference to her mother’s experience as Secretary of State, Chelsea finds that she has “embedded… an ethos and understanding into the center of our American diplomacy around the world. In every American embassy, women’s voices are now paid attention to in the countries in which they’re based, and our diplomats now notice when women’s voices are silent.”
At the evening’s close, a final honor, the Global Trailblazer Award, was presented to five women who advocate for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Manal al-Sharif of Saudi Arabia, Marianne Ibrahim of Egypt, Shatha al-Harazi of Yemen, Amira Yahyaoui of Tunisia, and Salwa Bugaighis of Libya. A number of these women used international mediums to share, and hopefully transform, some of their nation’s customs. Manal al-Sharif, for instance, used Youtube to upload a video of herself driving, an act that is forbidden to Saudi Arabian women. Additionally, Shatha al-Harazi used social media as a means of journalism and activism during the Arab Spring, ultimately publishing freelance work in a number of international news sources.
The evening came to its climax with an appearance by Tawakkul Karman, the 2011 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, the first Arab woman to receive the Prize, and the second Muslim to receive the Prize. Known as the “Mother of the Revolution” in Yemen, Karman offered some wisdom on the convergence of local and international women’s rights just after leading the audience in a cheer, “One, two, three, four, Bashar al-Assad out the door!”
She said solemnly, “Every great revolution requires great women. Every great country has great women.” Her words were especially moving as they followed an announcement that Manal al-Sharif could not join the ceremony because she feared she would not be able to return to her country. But Karman was filled more with hope for the future than lamentation of the present, and echoed the Global Trailblazer recipients’ attitude that their history was not solely that of women, but also of their country at large. Marianne Ibrahim of Egypt stated, for instance, that at the frontlines of the revolution, “for a few seconds… there were no sexes, just Egyptians.” By engaging in national and indeed, international causes, these women empower females everywhere — and create, in the Melanne Verveer’s words, “a better outcome for everybody.”
Photo above by Micky Wiswedel. All photos courtesy of Vital Voices.
Diane von Furstenberg, left, presents Rosana Schaack of Liberia with the Human Rights Award. Photo: Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks.
Vital Voices founder Melanne Verveer, right, Amira Yahyaoui of Tunisia, Marianne Ibrahim of Egypt, Salwa Bugaighis of Libya, Shatha Al-Harazi of Yemen, listen as 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tawakkol Karman, right, presents the 2012 Global Leadership Awards. Photo: Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks.
2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tawakkol Karman speaks with audience members. Photo: Micky Wiswedel.
As the evening comes to a close, the 2012 Global Leadership Award recipients embrace. Photo: Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks.