Exchanges as a Tool for Women’s Empowerment: The International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award Case Study

By Julia Koski, Program Officer, Meridian International Center

For over a century, celebrating International Women’s Day has served a dual purpose: celebrating the trailblazing people who have advanced women’s rights and reflecting on the remaining work needed to deliver full equality and opportunity to women and girls worldwide. The U.S. Department of State denotes this day of importance through the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award, an annual recognition of international women leaders who have demonstrated tremendous courage and leadership to advance peace, equality, and human rights. 

For over ten years, Meridian International Center has partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and Office of International Visitors to design and implement a short-term exchange for IWOC Awardees in the form of an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) project. Following receipt of their Award by the First Lady of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of State, participants engage in an eleven-day exchange in Washington, D.C., and across the U.S. to connect with women leaders, advocacy groups, research institutions, and more. The U.S.-based program recognizes these outstanding women leaders for their accomplishments but also invites them to participate in an exchange that creates networks and shares best practices, contributing to the further global advancement of women and girls.

To ensure that such progress is not siloed, international exchange supports the circulation of ideas, strategies, and stories of resilience that fuel women’s empowerment for future generations. At their core, exchanges add an invaluable dimension to women’s advocacy by elevating and shining a new light on many components of these Awardees’ change-generating work. 

Increasing access to tools and resources

At the crux of exchange is the belief that solutions to global challenges lie scattered across humanity’s shared experiences. Accessing the knowledge and best practices that can advance international causes, such as human rights, gender equality, and more, is possible when leaders convene to share their stories. For IWOC Awardees and their American peers, the IVLP allows women leaders from various countries to share strategies for overcoming similar cultural barriers, disseminate successful advocacy strategies, learn about new financial tools, and connect with media who can further elevate their voices. 

For 2024 IWOC Awardee Fatou Baldeh of The Gambia, it was clear that:

“many of the issues, regardless of where we live, women continue to face [such] inequalities… So, it’s important that we share lessons, we learn from each other, so that we can replicate [them] when we go back to our countries.”

Apparent in this year’s cohort of IWOC Awardees was the diverse geographic and topical areas these leaders impact through their brave work. For 2024 IWOC Awardee Agather Atuhaire of Uganda, this diversity was a strength of the exchange:

“The shared experiences - we need to tap into them because we are all advocating for different things… We need those synergies and that kind of working together. I think that’s why IWOC brought us together.”

Creating connections based on shared resilience

For women who have repeatedly exhibited courage to better their communities, the hardship accompanying such endurance can be a uniquely personal experience. To take on a political establishment or prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence, for example, demands resilience that often comes at significant individual cost to the women undertaking such critical work. Bonded by this distinction, the 2024 IWOC Awardees expressed that this Award goes much further than simply joining an esteemed network of 190 previous recipients. Instead, through participating in the IVLP exchange element of IWOC, they are exposed to the support and connections that allow them to resonate with global peers, sharing similar firsthand perspectives. 

As shared by Baldeh, her IVLP program opening session embodied this connection:

“I was sitting there feeling so motivated, just hearing these powerful women, and knowing that [we] are not alone. [We] are hearing what they are sharing from their countries and relating to it as a women’s rights activist.”

By creating an outlet to voice these shared experiences, exchanges help deepen the personal relationships between global women’s rights leaders. 

Beyond Women’s History Month

When March ends and this year’s chapter of Women’s History Month concludes, the reverberations of this IVLP exchange will continue to ring true for its IWOC Awardee participants. For 2024 IWOC Awardee Volha Harbunova of Belarus:

“The most important thing to me as a result of this project [was] to meet all the women from various countries and to be inspired by them: by their force, their experience, and their empathy.” Equipped with this new network and inspiration, sentiments among the group were hopeful. “These are global problems…. We can combine our efforts and share our tools, methods, and experiences so that we can work better in those areas.” As her colleague Ms. Fatou Baldeh attested, “It’s all part of building our continuous coalition in the fight.”

Julia Koski is a Program Officer on Meridian International Center's International Visitor Leadership Program team where she creates and manages projects for the Department of State's premier professional exchange program.  For over five years, she has worked to further public diplomacy and cross-cultural communication initiatives. She holds a master's degree in Global Communication from George Washington University. 

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