“It will be my great honor to share a stage with these amazing women. Each of the award recipients has overcome incredible odds in her pursuit to change the world and make it better,” the first lady said in a statement ahead of the awards ceremony. “As women, we must continue to stand together with the steadfast goal of making our world safer through acts of collaborative and individual bravery. As we all know, wherever women are diminished, the entire world is diminished with them.”
The award, which was inaugurated in 2007 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, recognizes women who have “demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.” Each U.S. embassy can nominate one woman for the award; this year the winners hail from countries like Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Vietnam, Yemen, and Peru. Since 2007, over 100 women from more than 60 countries have won the award.
The first lady will be joined by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon. In past years, the secretary of state has often participated in the ceremony. Rex Tillerson, currently in that role, is not expected to attend the event Wednesday. When former Secretary of State John Kerry gave the award to 14 women last year, one honoree, Chinese human rights activist Ni Yulan, was prevented from visiting Washington by Chinese authorities. “Every door opened by our vision will inspire others, and strengthen the platform on which women and men of courage may stand for generations to come,” Kerry said. In 2013, Michelle Obama joined him at the ceremony. “With every act of strength and defiance, with every blog post, with every community meeting, these women have inspired millions to stand with them and find their own voices,” she said.
Michelle Obama also participated in 2011 ceremony, when Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, presided over the annual event. In her speech to the award-winners, Clinton praised them for having “reached down deep and done what was necessary. And I often wonder how many of us, including myself, under those circumstances, could have done the same. Their courage, their compassion, their commitment, their quiet moral authority has come from putting the well-being of others before their own.”
Melania Trump’s participation in Wednesday’s award ceremony is an important marker for the first lady, who’s gotten off to a slow start in her new job and has chosen to remain primarily in New York while her son, Barron, finishes the school year.
Among this year’s award recipients are women who have made herculean commitments to protecting women and children around the world. Jannat Al Ghezi, deputy director of The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, helps women escape domestic violence by offering them shelter, training, protection, and legal services. Yemen’s Fadia Najib Thabet protects children from radicalization and recruitment; Syria’s Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh is being honored for her dedication to the women and children of Damascus, where she has remained throughout the Syrian conflict to run a nursery school and tailoring workshop to support displaced women; and Colombia’s Natalia Ponce de Leon lobbied for a law to increase penalties for assailants who use chemical agents after a stalker attacked her with sulfuric acid, burning her face and body. The legislation also improves burn treatment for victims.
Here’s the full list of honorees:
- Sharmin Akter, Activist Against Early/ Forced Marriage, Bangladesh
- Malebogo Molefhe, Human Rights Activist, Botswana
- Natalia Ponce de Leon, President, Natalia Ponce de Leon Foundation, Colombia
- Rebecca Kabugho, Political and Social Activist, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Jannat Al Ghezi, Deputy Director of The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Iraq
- Major Aichatou Ousmane Issaka, Deputy Director of Social Work at the Military Hospital of Niamey, Niger
- Veronica Simogun, Director and Founder, Family for Change Association, Papua New Guinea
- Cindy Arlette Contreras Bautista, Lawyer and Founder of Not One Woman Less, Peru
- Sandya Eknelygoda, Human Rights Activist, Sri Lanka
- Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh, Member, Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (F.M.A.), Syria
- Saadet Ozkan, Educator and Gender Activist, Turkey
- Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Blogger and Environmental Activist, Vietnam
- Fadia Najib Thabet, Human Rights Activist, Yemen
Two women being honored at the ceremony hail from countries temporarily banned under President Trump’s second executive order on immigration. (The executive order was blocked by federal judges, there’s a chance it will ultimately be upheld.)
After being awarded the State Department’s prize, the thirteen honorees will travel to different cities across the U.S. in April as part of an International Visitor Leadership Program, reconvening in Los Angeles for a final summit and discussion.