First Lady Dr. Jill Biden helped the State Department honor 21 women from across the world with the International Women of Courage Awards on Monday morning, saying the recipients' "fearlessness" is a reminder that everyone on Earth is interconnected.
"Justice can only be justice if it's for all," Biden, 69, said during a seven-minute speech. "Your fight is our fight, and your courage calls us to come together again and again and again."
The 15th annual award ceremony, held by the State Department on International Women's Day, recognized women from 15 countries around the world.
The first lady said the women made an "intentional decision" to "right the wrongs of the past and build a brighter future for everyone."
Seven women from Afghanistan were posthumously honored, while the 14 living recipients were from Belarus, Cameroon, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, Iran, Myanmar, Nepal, Somalia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Venezuela, according to the State Department.
"It's easy to think of them as mythical heroes or angels among us," Biden said in her speech. "What else could explain such herculean acts of fortitude and fearlessness?"
This year's virtual event honored the group of "extraordinary" 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 and sacrifice," the State Department said last week.
Before introducing Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the women tuning into the event remotely that "the United States is proud to be in your corner."
Biden went on to celebrate the women for making an "extraordinary choice" to fight for a more just world.
"You see, courage isn't really found," the first lady said. "It doesn't conjure away our doubts. It's an intentional decision made."
Among the women honored were political and social activists. One recipient, Maria Kalesnikava from Belarus, was imprisoned last year after mounting what the State Department called a "historic" election challenge against the country's 26-year leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Chinese lawyer Wang Yu was also lauded by this year's awards for taking on human rights cases in the face of physical assaults and harassment from the country's government. And Iranian chess player Shohreh Bayat was called "a champion for women's rights" after she refused to apologize in the face of threats when she was photographed at an international tournament without a hijab. She's now living in exile in the United Kingdom, according to the state department.
The Afghani women who posthumously received the award were killed throughout 2020 while serving their communities in Afghanistan. The attacks on the women "underscore the alarming trend of increased targeting of women in Afghanistan," the State Department said.
In her speech, Biden described courage as "the prickle of each possible disaster running the length of your back, but standing to face the unknown anyways." The first lady said "it's knowing your feet may falter, but choosing to walk forward" instead — hearing a "chorus of voices that say you are not enough" and "that you will not succeed," and still choosing to follow "a single note of hope through the din."
"These women made an extraordinary choice to persist, to demand justice, to believe that despite the obstacles and fear that they faced, that there is a future worth fighting for," she continued, calling on the U.S. to make similar choices for equality.
"If we have learned anything in this year of sickness and sorrow, it's that we are all connected to one another," she said. "Poverty and conflict, unrest and uncertainty: These aren't contained by borders."
However, the first lady said "we've seen how joy can spread too," pointing to worldwide rallies against injustice and inequality in the last year.
"The United States will stand with you," Biden told the recipients. "We will make the choice to lead, to be bold and to lift up women and girls everywhere who light our way."
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