ROEGCHANDA Pascoe braved death threats while trying to ease the gang violence plaguing the Cape Flats community just outside Cape Town, South Africa. Facia Boyenoh Harris faced harassment while advocating for women’s rights and protections against sexual violence in Liberia. Najla Mangoush a year ago accepted the role of foreign minister in the UN-backed transitional government of Libya, a country deeply divided by a decade of civil war.
These three Africans are among a dozen women being honoured by the US State Department with its 2022 International Women of Courage Awards for demonstrating ‘exceptional courage, strength and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality … often at great personal risk and sacrifice,’ according to a press statement.
They will be recognised Monday at a ceremony that, because of the pandemic, will bring them together virtually instead of in person in Washington. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will preside, with remarks by first lady Jill Biden.
Pascoe, 47, is a crime prevention activist working in the Cape Flats, a poor community outside Cape Town where mixed-race people were forcibly resettled in the 1960s under South Africa’s apartheid system.
Gangs have had a decades long hold there, trafficking in drugs, guns, prostitution and more. Violence has been ‘so normalised,’ Pascoe told VOA.
But in 2013, after a boy was caught in gang crossfire and killed while playing outside, she co-founded the volunteer Manenberg Safety Forum. Named for the township in which it’s based, the forum raises awareness about the criminal justice system, trains community advocates, and provides counselling and other support for victims of violence, especially women and children. Pascoe draws an honorarium through a grant from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
On July 20, 2016, Pascoe and several other Manenberg residents witnessed an alleged gang attack on a man who died later that day. Pascoe was the only witness willing to testify at the 2019 murder trial, helping to convict the gang’s leader and two others.
The day before her scheduled testimony, unknown assailants shot at her house. Pascoe had been moved to a safe house earlier that day, but her young children were still at home. They have since joined her in hiding, fearing gang retaliation.
‘I cannot be silent when injustice is happening to any human being,’ she told VOA of her decision to testify. But ‘the effect of gang violence has been dire for me. … I’ll never be able to move back to the community.’
Yet Pascoe has persevered. Through the forum, she continues to mediate community conflict and support victimised women and families. She set up a crime prevention and intervention programme for at-risk youths. She has organised a ‘walking bus’ system for schoolchildren to be escorted by adults – often mothers who had been jobless. They get paid, ‘skilled up and trained how to do emergency first aid,’ Pascoe said.
‘She has amazing strategies to develop her community,’ Oscar Nceba Siwali said of Pascoe in an email to VOA. He directs the Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency, which promotes nonviolence in some of the country’s toughest communities. ‘In workshops to help engage NGOs to work together, she has been most helpful – points forward while acknowledging [the] past.’
Pascoe hopes her selection for a Courage Award will help others realise that, no matter how disadvantaged, they can make valuable contributions.
‘It will mean a lot for our young women leaders,’ she said.
Facia Boyenoh Harris
In 2005, Harris was in her first year at African Methodist Episcopal University in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, when she and some classmates started the Paramount Young Women Initiative. They raised money for scholarships to help other students struggling with financial need, family burdens, academic difficulties and more.
They added workshops. ‘We talked about family life, socioeconomic issues and the inspiration that we needed’ as Liberia began recovering from civil war, said Harris, now 39. ‘We had a safe space to come together.’
Today, the nonprofit initiative continues to provide that safe space support for adolescent girls and young women, promoting education, mentoring and leadership.
It’s just one activist outlet for Harris, a former journalist whose paid job is to direct outreach for Liberia’s Independent Information Commission. It’s charged with enforcing the country’s Freedom of Information Act.
Harris co-founded the Liberian Feminist Forum and, as a community organiser, has campaigned for broader political participation and better sanitation. She fights gender-based violence, including rape and female genital mutilation.
In Liberia, ‘we’re dealing with a very strong patriarchal system that continually marginalises women,’ Harris said.
Liberia’s president declared rape a national emergency in 2020, and the government recently launched a hotline to report sexual and gender-based violence. But Gender Minister Williametta E. Saydee-Tarr, addressing the nation’s Senate Thursday [March 10], complained of low rates of reporting and slow criminal prosecution.
‘There are lots of challenges with the system,’ Harris said. Police sometimes say they lack the capacity to investigate or make arrests, or a victim or relatives may not want to press charges. Cases can get snagged in the criminal justice system.
People need ‘timely access to justice,’ Harris said.
She’s also advocating for equal representation in public office. Though Liberia was the first African country to elect a female head of state – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president from 2006 to 2018 – women remain underrepresented in national elective office. Harris noted that in Liberia’s Legislature, women hold just 11 of 103 seats in the lower chamber and two of 30 seats in the Senate.
‘Women do not have the same access to money’ for filing fees and campaigns, said Harris, suggesting campaign finance measures.
Harris said the Courage Award honours ‘the women of Liberia who have continuously worked hard to ensure that injustices come to an end’ while advancing the country’s development. It represents a personal challenge, too: ‘I have a greater responsibility to do more … to leave a better Liberia for the generations after us.’
Najla Mangoush of Libya
A lawyer and human rights advocate, she also is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, just outside of Washington DC. Mangoush – who holds a master’s degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University, also in Virginia – set aside her dissertation to take the cabinet position.
Peacemaking skills get put to the test in Libya, an oil-rich country mired in conflict since long-time ruler Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011. Mangoush is part of the Government of National Unity, a UN-based administration installed in Tripoli in early 2021 as a transition to an elected government. But presidential and parliamentary elections set for December were delayed and have not yet been rescheduled.
A new government appointed by Libya’s parliament March 1 has challenged the unity government’s mandate, putting Mangoush’s Cabinet post at risk.
During the 2011 revolution, Mangoush worked with civil society organisations as head of the National Transitional Council’s public engagement unit. She also has represented Libya at the US Institute of Peace. Now she’s grappling with issues such as illegal migration and the presence of unwanted foreign military troops.
‘To enter into the fray of Libyan politics and Libyan civil war and take a stand is a pretty courageous thing,’ said Marc Gopin, who directs GMU’s Centre for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, where Mangoush once served as program director for peacebuilding and traditional law.
An additional award
Beyond Monday’s virtual awards ceremony, honourees will take part in a virtual leadership programme ‘to connect with their American counterparts and strengthen the global network of women leaders,’ the State Department said in its press release. More than 170 women from more than 80 countries have been recognised for their work since 2007.
To support their work, each honouree also receives a $5,000 stipend from American Women for International Understanding. The nonprofit group and its roughly 125 members promote ‘women-to-women interactions’ through exchange visits, study programmes and events.
The group’s stipends allow recipients to do more of their essential work, said Julienne Lusenge, a 2021 Courage Award winner and human rights activist in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She told VOA that, with her $5,000, ‘I built bathrooms for the children’ at a school in Mbau village.
AWIU plans a May 24 dinner in Los Angeles to celebrate this year’s honourees. There, in recognition of its 15-year collaboration with the awards programme, the group will receive its own prize: the State Department’s Gender Champion Award.