Awardees Are Leaders, Not Victims

Americans for UNFPA's International Awards for the Health and Dignity of Women showcase contributions from women in the developing world.

I can think of no better way to explain UNFPA to Americans than to share the examples of real women making a difference in their communities. This is the embodiment of UNFPA.

On Tuesday, October 2nd, Americans for UNFPA will honor three women with our International Awards for the Health and Dignity of Women. These three women live and work in their own communities to address problems particular to women. This year they are named for trailblazer and stalwart champion of women Ambassador Robin Chandler Duke. Mrs. Duke, a founding member of our organization, is the kind of woman who lives her beliefs and says what she means.

I'm especially proud of our awardees because when Americans see images of women from low-income countries – the kind of women UNFPA's assistance benefits – they are usually victims of famine, HIV, violence. However, our honorees showcase these women and their passion, ingenuity and resourcefulness. They demonstrate that women's rights activists and leaders exist in every country of the world.

The work of our honorees is funded, in part, by UNFPA and we use their stories to highlight both the challenges faced by women around the world and the solutions that UNFPA pursues. And this is the real story about what the U.S. loses – philosophically and morally – when we defund UNFPA.

This year's honorees include Salamatou Traoré, an imposing Nigerian midwife, who commands attention everywhere she goes. When the non-governmental organization (NGO) she worked for refused to make medical and social services for victims of fistula a priority, Traoré created her own NGO, Dimol. Rather than deal solely with the repair of fistula, she took the whole problem and created a new strategy for prevention, repair and treatment. A midwife, Traoré considers the issue of fistula — and all issues of women's health — a human rights issue. And she tells this to all the men she encounters, from village elders to members of Parliament.

From Siem Reap, Cambodia, we honor Ket Noeun, who is far ahead of the times of her country, in her big-picture approach to changing the lives of survivors of domestic violence. She trains law enforcement and local authorities, provides victims with shelter, helps them through the legal process and empowers survivors to shape their own destinies. By the end of their legal process, survivors leave the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center trained in sewing, cooking, and other business trades. They're often presented with sewing machines donated by UNFPA and 25,000 riel to start a small business so that they can return to their village with a new life.

Dr. Dorj Munkhuu, the "godmother" of Mongolia, was born into a nomadic herder family and held, among other positions in her career, a seat as a member of Parliament. Acutely aware of the problems of providing health care, particularly for women, on the steppes of Mongolia, she dedicated much of her career to improving that situation for women and families. With UNFPA's help, she brings mobile clinics to the most remote areas of the country. I had the good fortune to visit Dr. Munkhuu in July. In a tiny remote clinic, surrounded by nothing for miles and miles, I was amazed to watch a nurse show a woman her developing baby on an ultrasound machine.

UNFPA helps these women in their quest to improve the lives of all women in their communities. One of our board members, a former member of Congress, told me that the best way to make a legislator a champion for UNFPA is for them to meet even one of these remarkable women. Unfortunately, the new ethics rules prohibit us from taking our elected officials to visit field programs. But next week we'll bring these three amazing women to New York and D.C. It's our hope that our elected officials will see that what these women offer are real, lasting solutions and that if we contributed, our impact would be enormous.