1. Opinion

Maxwell: Celebrating women of courage

Published May 5, 2017

During the final minutes of the 2016 presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump called Democrat Hillary Clinton a "nasty woman." I wasn't surprised by the insult. After all, it was quintessential Trump. I was disappointed many Americans were blasé about it.

That "nasty woman" moment and our collective reaction to it reawakened my awareness that women are the most vulnerable members of societies in most places worldwide. I also was reminded that women everywhere must be courageous when they demand rights most men take for granted. In many parts of the world, including the United States, women are labeled dangerous or nuisances if they shake up the political status quo.

My sensitivity to this issue comes from my years of being exposed to valiant women I meet through World Partnerships Inc., the Tampa Bay-based affiliate of the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program.

Most recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Sandya Ekneligoda, one of 13 women from around the world who received the U.S. Secretary of State International Women of Courage Award for 2017. The award is given annually to women who show "exceptional courage and perseverance against all odds." First lady Melania Trump presented the award March 29 in Washington.

Ekneligoda was chosen from Sri Lanka for her "relentless search for truth and justice in the face of tremendous personal danger." She became a hero in Sri Lanka after her husband, a popular political cartoonist, suddenly disappeared in 2010. His work was highly critical of the nation's president, his corruption and human rights abuses.

Ekneligoda tried in vain over the years to get information about her husband from government officials. Disappointment transformed the wife and mother into a human rights activist, national hero and household name. She is well-known to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

She said she worries about her personal safety for simply wanting the truth about the fate of her husband. She is certain that he is a victim of government violence.

Spending time in the United States and meeting other recipients of the courage award from other repressive places made her aware that women around the world are fighting for the same basic rights. She said she is surprised that the United States is unable to elect a woman as president.

A highlight of her visit to America, she said, was being hosted by World Partnerships. She enjoyed the personal attention and meetings with high-ranking civic, legal, education and government leaders.

"For 17 years, World Partnerships has brought thousands of women leaders worldwide to our community," executive director Mary Ellen Upton said. "They come here because we match them with their peers in our community who can help these young women leaders to amplify and strengthen their voices in their communities, their regions and their countries. Our community becomes a part of their support system back home."

Examples of World Partnerships successes include women from Cameroon who learned to better defend the LGBT community in Central Africa; founders of the first women's journalists' organization in Afghanistan; a journalist from Swaziland who raises money to buy shoes for young girls to continue their education; a Macedonian activist who started an advocacy group for women's health; and a three-time cancer survivor in India who supports other female victims of cancer who otherwise would be stigmatized and silenced.

Upton said the increase in conservatism, the rise of so-called populism and the elections of autocratic heads of state make life more difficult for women worldwide. She said this emerging landscape underscores the vital need for organizations such as World Partnerships that can teach women to effectively demand and secure their rights.