Biographies of 2016 Award Winners From U.S. Department Of State
Sara Hossain is a human rights lawyer who has fought on behalf of Bangladesh’s most disadvantaged and marginalized citizens, particularly women and girls, in her country’s highest courts of law. A barrister in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and the Honorary Executive Director of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, Ms. Hossain played a key role in drafting her country’s first comprehensive legislation on violence against women, which became law in 2010. Ms. Hossain has brought landmark cases challenging practices such as forced veiling, the use of fatwas to impose degrading punishments on women and girls, and the use of non-medical procedures to judge a woman’s virginity in rape and sexual assault cases. Ms. Hossain’s courage, passion, and integrity have earned her the trust of her clients, and respect from human rights advocates around the world.
BelizeIn an institution largely dominated by men, 20-year Belize Department of Immigration veteran Debra Baptist-Estrada has consistently refused bribes and other incentives to look the other way. As Port Commander of Belize’s only international airport, Ms. Estrada worked with U.S. officials last spring to crack open a drug and human smuggling operation to the U.S. and Europe. After being transferred to Belize’s northern border this summer, Ms. Estrada continued to bring her incorruptible style to the job, enforcing immigration laws that had not been enforced for a very long time, and rejecting bribes to look the other way. While many might shrug off corruption as “the human condition,” Ms. Estrada is quietly and courageously effecting change and strengthening the rule of law.
ChinaFor the last 15 years, at the cost of her legal career and the use of her legs, Ni Yulan has fought to protect the legal rights of average citizens and promote the rule of law in China. A business lawyer, Ms. Ni began defending the property rights of citizens whose homes had been slated for demolition to make way for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For her outspokenness, she has been arrested and imprisoned twice, sentenced to hard labor, and beaten to the point of paralysis. Despite continued threats and harassment by police, Ms. Ni remains undaunted in defending the rights of her fellow citizens, filing lawsuits against public security officials and connecting lawyers and activists across China to advance the cause of human rights and the rule of law.
FranceAfter losing her son in a terrorist attack, Latifa Ibn Ziaten has devoted her life to combatting radicalization with tolerance and interfaith understanding. Born in Morocco, Ms. Ibn Ziaten moved to France as a young bride of 18. She raised five children, teaching them to value the education she never had and to embrace their dual cultural identities. In 2012, her life was shattered when an Islamist terrorist went on a killing spree that ended with the death of her son Imad, a French soldier. Desperate to channel her grief into something positive, she founded the Imad Association for Youth and Peace, starting a grassroots campaign to intervene in troubled communities. Ms. Ibn Ziaten crisscrosses France promoting interfaith dialogue and the importance of helping young people develop a positive identity and sense of responsibility. As France deals with terror attacks and reports of rising extremism, Ms. Ibn Ziaten is a brave and uniquely credible voice for hope and coexistence.
GuatemalaThelma Aldana is the Attorney General of Guatemala. Ms. Aldana began her career as a janitor in a local family court, while studying for a law degree at night. She quickly rose through the ranks to become Magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice, where as the sole woman justice, she convinced her colleagues to create 33 specialized courts for crimes of femicide and other forms of violence against women. Nearly two years ago, after taking office as Attorney General, Ms. Aldana fearlessly prosecuted criminals and politicians that had previously been considered untouchable, including bringing corruption charges against the President who appointed her and his Vice-President. In holding high office holders accountable, and promoting reforms to make the legal system more accessible to average citizens, she is truly working to bring justice to all Guatemalans.
IraqYezidi activist and gynecologist Dr. Nagham Nawzat Hasan has dedicated her career to promoting equality for women, combatting gender-based violence, and providing psychological support to survivors. Since the 2014 takeover of the city of Sinjar by Da’esh, resulting in the massacre of thousands of Yezidi men and the enslavement of Yezidi women, Dr. Hasan has focused her efforts on rescuing and assisting Yezidi girls traumatized by Da’esh. Responding to the humanitarian crisis, Dr. Hasan was one of the first physicians to provide psychological counseling and health screenings to freed and escaped girls. Today, she regularly visits Internally Displaced Persons camps with large Yezidi populations to conduct outreach and encourage parents to allow their daughters to visit her clinic for basic health care and psychosocial support.
MalaysiaNisha Ayub is a leading advocate for transgender rights in Malaysia. She is a co-founder of two NGOs – the SEED Foundation, which provides support to transgender individuals and other marginalized communities, and Justice for Sisters, which provides legal aid to transgender individuals and seeks to end persecution of LGBTI people. Recently, she spearheaded a campaign to promote positive images of transgender people, and currently runs workshops on sexual orientation and hate crimes for government, corporate, and civil society groups. As a transgender, Muslim woman living in a Muslim-majority country, Ms. Ayub has been beaten and imprisoned simply for who she is. At age 21, she was arrested for dressing as a woman and served three months in a men’s prison, where she was sexually abused. Despite continuing threats, Ms. Ayub perseveres in fighting for the rights of LGBTI individuals throughout her country.
MauritaniaIn 1988, Fatimata M’baye, the co-founder and president of the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights, became Mauritania’s first woman lawyer. In the 30 years since, she has achieved many more firsts – the first conviction for child exploitation, the first indictment for slavery, and the first prison sentence applied under the 2007 anti-slavery law, which she helped draft. Despite multiple imprisonments and threats to her life, she regularly takes on the most difficult legal cases – from representing clients accused of apostasy to her work on behalf of a “committee of widows” seeking justice for husbands murdered during a period of state-sanctioned communal violence. In a country struggling with unresolved ethnic tensions, Ms. M’baye promotes a message of tolerance: “I do not see myself as a black woman. I could be born white, yellow, Mongolian, or Kurdish, and I would have recognized myself in each of these. For me, the value of the human being is above everything.”
RussiaRussian journalist Zhanna Nemtsova is a champion for democracy, education, and freedom of information in her native Russia. Following the assassination last year of her father Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister, Ms. Nemtsova became a determined voice for justice. Despite personal threats, Ms. Nemtsova remained in Moscow to demand a thorough and transparent investigation into her father’s death and to decry the Kremlin’s stranglehold over the media. After asserting that Russian President Vladimir Putin bore “political responsibility” for her father’s assassination, she was forced into exile in Germany, where today she continues to advocate for human rights in Russia as a reporter for Deutsche Welle. Last month, she founded the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom to support research on Russian economics, politics, and propaganda to further her father’s dreams for a prosperous and democratic Russia.
SlovakiaAs Director of the Human Rights League (HRL) – Slovakia’s premier NGO providing legal and other assistance to foreigners –attorney Zuzana Stevulova has emerged as the country’s most prominent advocate for refugee and migrant rights. In a country where the majority of asylum applications are rejected, she has won numerous cases at Slovakia’s Supreme Court on behalf of clients in expulsion and asylum proceedings. Since the start of Europe’s migration crisis, Ms. Stevulova has been a strong and unwavering voice for greater assistance to and compassion for refugees. She has not shied away from criticizing the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric of certain politicians and regularly challenges social prejudice and fear by introducing Slovak citizens to refugees who have successfully integrated into Slovak society.
SudanA champion of women working in Sudan’s informal sector, Awadeya Mahmoud has been fearless in confronting government authorities, challenging unfair social norms, and overcoming economic obstacles. Ms. Mahmoud is Founder and Chair of both the Women’s Food and Tea Sellers’ Cooperative and the Women’s Multi-Purpose Cooperative for Khartoum State. The cooperatives represent some 8,000 women, many of them internally displaced by conflict in Darfur and the Two Areas, who depend on selling tea and other informal sector work to survive. Like the women she represents, Ms. Mahmoud was displaced by conflict and became a roadside tea seller when her family moved to Khartoum. As a “tea lady,” she faced harassment from authorities. Unshaken by the fact that she had no legal recourse in Sudan’s male-dominated society, she organized women into cooperatives, encouraging them to assert their rights, engage politicians on police behavior, and skillfully use the media to draw public attention to the challenges women in the informal sector face. 25 years later, her continuing resolve to seek justice and equal opportunities for women remains an inspiration to women throughout Sudan.
TanzaniaVicky Ntetema is Executive Director of Under the Same Sun, an NGO dedicated to ending the often-deadly discrimination against people with albinism. A decade ago, as the BBC’s Tanzania Bureau Chief, Ms. Ntetema went undercover to investigate the gruesome business of buying and selling the body parts of people with albinism. Posing as a potential buyer, she infiltrated networks of witchdoctors who claimed the body parts could bring luck to purchasers. Death threats followed the airing of Ms. Ntetma’s stories, and temporarily forced her into hiding. But her courageous reporting galvanized international attention and led to a series of arrests and convictions. Ms. Ntetma has remained fearless, eventually leaving journalism to fight with international public and private sector partners for the human rights of people with albinism.
ThailandRodjaraeg Wattanapanit is the co-owner of a bookstore, Book Re:public, and co-founder of Creating Awareness for Enhanced Democracy (CAFÉ Democracy), an association dedicated to creating political awareness, empowering citizens, and promoting the free exchange of ideas. Since the 2014 military coup, she has been summoned twice to military camps for “attitude adjustment,” during which she was asked to sign an agreement to refrain from political activities. Despite being forced to close her bookstore for a year, she remained undaunted in efforts to engage her community on democracy, freedom of expression, and women’s rights. Since re-opening last fall, Book Re:public has become an indispensable public space for neighbors to gather, discuss societal problems, and develop solutions to Thailand’s political challenges.
Dr. Nihal Naj Ali Al-Awlaqi has served as Yemen’s Minister of Legal Affairs since her appointment in January 2016. She also is a member of the Republic of Yemen Government’s delegation to the peace talks and is a lawyer by training. Previously, she was a member the Constitutional Drafting Committee where she worked to ensure that women’s rights and interests were integrated into a new draft constitution, and advocated for greater access to education for Yemen’s young people. Dr. Al-Awlaqi also served as one of the key women’s representatives in the National Dialogue Conference and has worked as a legal advisor to the Women’s Center for Training at the University of Aden. During one of the most challenging times in Yemen’s history, Dr. Al-Awlaqi serves as a unifying voice for peace, human rights and women’s rights and a more democratic future for her country.