Key takeaways

  • The Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality, and the empowerment of women and girls, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.
  • In honor of Women’s History Month, the UCLA Anderson School of Management hosted an event with three of this year’s award recipients, whose work and values embody inclusive excellence.
  • Despite fear, threats and sometimes slow progress, the panelists persist in their work: “The people need us.”

“Courage means that you put what you might achieve by speaking up above anything else,” journalist Agather Atuhaire said of her work documenting corruption in Uganda. 

Atuhaire, together with Ecuadorian community leader Fátima Corozo and Bangladeshi attorney and Supreme Court advocate Fawzia Karim Firoze, spoke at “Women’s Leadership and Global Flourishing: A Conversation with 2024 International Women of Courage” at the UCLA Anderson School of Management on March 11. Katelyn Choe, U.S. diplomat in residence for Southern California, moderated the well-attended event.

The annual IWOC Award is conferred by the U.S. Secretary of State “on women from around the world who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength and leadership in order to bring about positive change to their communities, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.” Those attributes were in tall order among the speakers.

U.S. Department of State
Hear from the 2024 International Women of Courage Award recipients.

“I think my activism started when I started protecting my mother from the abuse of, unfortunately, my father,” Atuhaire said. “You have to push back, you have to fight for what you want. There’s not much goodwill in this world. You have to demand respect, you have to demand [that] your rights be respected.”

Although her work as a journalist creates the kind of detailed documentation needed to prosecute cases of corruption and abuse, Atuhaire said no government official in Uganda ever uses that documentation to launch investigations into people in power. 

This lack of impact, coupled with the threats to her life that her investigative journalism regularly provokes, led Atuhaire at one point to think, “If I was killed today for doing this, and I haven’t changed anything, I would die in vain.

“[Then] one day I found solace in fact that I’ve done my job and played my part, I’ve done what is within my power, what I have control over …  I’m willing to do what sits well with my conscience,” she said. 

Firoze has fought to establish sexual harassment prevention guidelines at Bangladeshi universities and places of employment. In spite of fearing the backlash that her court cases may provoke, she said, “Every case becomes so important, especially women’s cases, [because] I have to establish a right. Somehow I have to [return a child] to its mother, somehow I have to get money for a woman so that she can have a life, because she’s been thrown out of a marriage after 35 years without any protections. [In] this way, I get my courage each and every day from my clients.”

Asked how she manages to persist in her work, she answered, “I am a very optimistic person. I think if you start dreaming, something is going to happen.” Even when a case looks impossible, she is always willing to argue for her clients’ rights. 

The many small encouraging changes she has produced enable Firoze to envision the larger goals of changing family law and the judicial infrastructure in Bangladesh. Steadily working toward those goals will enable her to die with satisfaction, she said. 

2024 IWOC recipients
Todd Cheney
From left: Katelyn Choe, Fátima Corozo, Fawzia Karim Firoze, Agather Atuhaire and Heather Caruso.

A long-term community worker in Esmeraldas, an Ecuadoran city plagued by violence and lack of opportunity, Corozo’s remarks echoed those of the other speakers. “If we have values, they give us strength and with that, we need to be courageous. 

“You don’t see progress that you want when you want it, but there is change,” she said, noting that her city after many years finally had a paved road and a new school. “It’s been really hard, people stopped believing [because no one did anything for them], but because of my perseverance, people now have hope.” 

All three women agreed that people working to change their societies need a long-term vision, but must expect incremental change and value the small gains they achieve. In addition, Atuhaire said, “Whoever wants to do this work or wants to challenge anything, must go in prepared for [personal threats and intimidation].” 

“I also feel fear, but the people need us,” Corozo said. “They need us to pick up, to keep going and not stop.”

“Women’s Leadership and Global Flourishing” was spearheaded by Heather Caruso, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA Anderson. The event was co-sponsored by the UCLA International Institute with the support of the Office of Global Women’s Issues of the U.S. Department of State; the nongovernment organizations Meridian, American Women for International Understanding and International Citizen Diplomacy Los Angeles; and the UCLA executive vice chancellor and provost and the senior advisor to the chancellor.