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US honours Delhi gang rape victim with courage award

Last updated on: March 9, 2013 09:01 IST

US honours Delhi gang rape victim with courage award

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Lalit K Jha in Washington

Known to India and the world as 'Nirbhaya' (fearless), the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern, whose brutal gang rape on a moving bus in Delhi in December inspired widespread protests, has been posthumously presented with the International Women of Courage Award.

"Her bravery inspired millions of women and men to come together with a simple message: No more. No more looking the other way when gender-based violence happens. No more stigma against victims or survivors," the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said at a state department function held on Friday to honour women from across the globe with the prestigious International Women of Courage Award.

The award was presented to the brave young girl posthumously. None of her family members were present on the occasion. The Indian Ambassador to the United States, Nirupama Rao was present at the award ceremony in which eight others were presented with the award.

In a rare gesture, Kerry asked the jam packed auditorium to stand and join him in a moment of silence for 'Nirbhaya', whom he described as 'brave, big heart and fearless'.

"Nirbhaya's fight survives her. For inspiring people to work together to end violence against women in India and around the world by displaying immense courage in demanding justice, and with great sadness, we honour Nirbhaya as a woman of exceptional courage, and we honour her posthumously," the secretary of state said at the function presided over by the US First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Kerry then personally read out the message that Nirbhaya's parents had sent for the occasion. "Today, our message to the world is: do not tolerate any attack on your dignity and honour; do not silently bear ill treatment. Earlier, women would keep silent and hide away when they were subjected to sexual misconduct," the parents said in their message.

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Image: US First Lady Michelle Obama hugs Fartuun Adan of Somalia as Adan receives the International Women of Courage Award at the state department in Washington
Photographs: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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"They would not report it to the police, nor lodge any complaints. They were scared of the stigma. That has changed -- the fear is now gone. And while her end was horrendous, her case is imparting strength to all women to fight and to improve the system.

"Women, both in India and in the rest of the world, refuse to be stigmatised and will not keep silent anymore. This incident has opened their minds and empowered them. They are no longer scared of what anyone will say," the parents said.

In their message, Nirbhaya's parents said that they never imagined that the girl they thought was their daughter would one day be the daughter of the entire world. "She was meant to be the daughter of the world. This is a huge achievement in itself," they said.

"She was always different from other children. Other children cry when being sent to school, but she was an extraordinary child who would cry when she was not going to school. She was a happy girl, and even in times of struggle she would stay cheerful. We gave equal treatment to all our three children; there was no discrimination because of her being a girl," the parents said.

They mentioned in the letter about her struggle to achieve success in life despite poverty and other odds, adding she had just one goal in life, to study and become a doctor.

The other awardees for this year were Malalai Bahaduri, first sergeant, Afghan National Interdiction Unit (Afghanistan); Julieta Castellanos, rector, National Autonomous University of Honduras (Honduras); Dr Josephine Obiajulu Odumakin, president, Campaign for Democracy (Nigeria); Elena Milashina, journalist, human rights activist (Russia); and Fartuun Adan, executive director, Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre (Somalia), Tsering Woeser (Wei Se), Tibetan author, poet, blogger (China); Razan Zeitunah, human rights lawyer and Founder, Local Coordination Committees (Syria) and Ta Phong Tan, blogger (Vietnam).

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Image: US First Lady Michelle Obama (left) and Secretary of State John Kerry (right) give Afghan First Sergeant Malalai Bahaduri the International Women of Courage Award at the state department in Washington
Photographs: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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Speaking on the occasion, the First Lady, Michelle Obama, said when these women witnessed horrific crimes or the disregard for basic human rights, they spoke up, risking everything they had to see that justice was done.

"When they saw their communities or their countries were ignoring issues like sexual violence or women's rights, they gave those issues a face and a voice. And 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, and work together to achieve real and lasting change," she said.

The first lady said that the award was not simply an honour bestowed upon a few, but a call for all of us to open our eyes to the injustices around us.

"And that is the lesson we can learn from the journalist who speaks out against torture and racism; from the poet who takes to Twitter to make a stand against oppression; from the mother whose son was murdered, but channeled her grief into a nationwide movement for change. That is the spirit that we celebrate today. And that is the potential that lies within every woman and every girl -- the potential to stand up, to demand action, and to build a better world for our next generation," she said.

Kerry said the Obama administration has put advancing the status of women and girls right at the center of America's foreign policy.

Reading citation for Nirbhaya, Kerry mentioned the plight of the 23-year-old victim when she boarded a bus in Delhi last December.

"For hours, she was brutally gang raped. She was then tossed away, along with her friend, left naked and bleeding alongside the road and left to die. But she kept fighting," he said.

"Over the next two weeks, she became aware of the growing movement that was supporting her and the outrage and indignation ignited around the world. As she fought for her life, she decided to fight for justice, too," the US secretary of state said.

He said that the courageous girl even defied her doctors and gave two detailed accounts of her attack that the police used to arrest her rapists.


Image: Michelle Obama stands with Josephine Odumakin of Nigeria as Odumakin receives the International Women of Courage Award at the state department in Washington
Photographs: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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