U.S. Gov’t Honors First Liberian Women’s Rights Activist

Ms. Facia Harris.

The U.S. Secretary of State has honored Facia Boyenoh Harris for advancing the rights of women and girls in Liberia.

Established in 2007, the annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) award honors 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. 

Ms. Harris is the first Liberian in the program’s history, to be recognized for this prestigious award. To date, under the IWOC program, the U.S. Department of State has recognized more than 170 women from over 80 countries.  

The United States firmly believes that when women and girls are empowered and meaningfully participate in every sector of life, we are all safer, more prosperous, and secure.  Rooted in this longstanding belief, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues is tasked with an important mandate: ensuring that the rights and empowerment of women and girls, in all their diversity, is integrated throughout U.S. foreign policy despite the existence of significant barriers, and especially this year with no shortlist of crises, from Ukraine to Afghanistan.  Women and girls around the world have persisted in making massive strides in advancing human rights, gender equity and equality, peace and security, rule of law, accountability, and so much more.

“For 16 years our office has proudly supported U.S. secretaries of state in recognizing more than 170 remarkable women representing over 80 countries as International Women of Courage.  To this year’s International Women of Courage awardees, I want to express my sincerest admiration and deepest appreciation for your tireless work and advocacy to advance the rights of women and girls in the face of serious risk and unforgettable sacrifice.  Your courage, strength, and leadership are truly inspiring, and the United States is deeply committed and privileged to honor and support you, along with so many other brave women and girls determined to ensure that every person can live a dignified, secure, and fulfilling life,” said U.S. Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the 16th Annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards

All awardees have advocated for the protection of human rights, advanced gender equity and equality, empowered women and girls, in all their diversity, and fostered peace and government transparency around the world.

The award ceremony was held virtually this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. Harris is a life-long activist for women’s rights and against gender-based violence in Liberia.  

As a co-founder of the Paramount Young Women Initiative, she has worked for decades to address the pervasive sexual assault and harassment of school-aged girls, create opportunities for education, and provide leadership training for the next generation of female leaders.  

She is also a community organizer, from co-founding the Liberian Feminist Forum to facilitating coordination among female advocacy groups, to fostering neighborhood activism, where she organizes groups on issues as wide-ranging as political participation, sanitation, and rape.  

Ms. Harris’s courageous activism—which in some cases have been met with threats and harassment—began in the wake of the civil crises in Liberia, where rape, female genital mutilation, and sexual harassment continue to threaten girls and women of all ages.

During the ceremony, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recognized Ms. Harris for her impactful and necessary work, “After Liberia’s civil wars, in which violence against women was widespread, Facia Boyenoh Harris dedicated herself to reducing gender-based violence and increasing women’s political participation.  

She has organized marches against rape, helped free protesters from jail, conducted outreach to first-time women voters, trained democracy activists, and works with girls to make sure they know their rights, worth, and potential.”

First Lady of the United States of America Dr. Jill Biden spoke about the power of women to change society: “Women have been told that they are dangerous, and that is because they are dangerous to corruption and injustice.  When we raise our voices, we have the power to shatter the shields of oppression.  That is why cowardly men stop girls from learning.  It’s why women’s bodies become casualties of war.”

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is currently the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and formerly the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, also recognized these courageous women during the ceremony.  

She remarked, “I’m in awe of the heroines we’re celebrating, “You are journalists and peacemakers and prosecutors fighting organized crime and corruption. You are community leaders, bravely testifying against gang leaders.  You are defenders of the environment of indigenous rights and LGBTQI+ rights.  You have shut down sexual harassment and lifted up the next generation of women leaders.  You listen.  You lead, and you show courage beyond belief.”

At the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, where a watch party was held for Ms. Harris, her family, colleagues, and friends, Ambassador Michael McCarthy spoke about the awe-inspiring culture of strong Liberian female leaders of which Ms. Harris is a part, “I will point out that while Ms. Harris is Liberia’s first International Women of Courage awardee, she is here because of a culture of strong and awe-inspiring Liberian women.  

Two women—former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa, and her fellow Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee—are, of course, world-renowned for their courage.  

Then there are the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace and the many, many groups, such as the Liberian Feminist Forum and those who participated in the 2020 March for Justice, who found inspiration and space for collective action in their wake.  

There are the everyday heroes in each one of our lives: our mothers and our aunts and our sisters and our daughters and our spouses.  

And those who gave so we could be here today: our grandmothers and their mothers.  That is all to say that Ms. Harris, in all of her truly impressive accomplishments as a tireless advocate for women and girls, was inspired, mentored, and assisted by the Liberian women all around her.” Ms. Harris, who is also graduating from the University of Liberia’s law school this week, thanked those around her for their support and shared efforts.  

“Today, we recognize the selfless and remarkable contributions of Liberian women for their social, economic, cultural, and political achievements,” she remarked.  

Ms. Harris also led a moment of silence for the victims of sexual- and gender-based violence in Liberia, and she pointed out that change will not happen until more women are in leadership positions in the Liberian Senate, House of Representatives, and the Cabinet. 

“To all the girls and young women,” she concluded, “you are already courageous.  Also remember, ‘If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,’ a piece of advice from Toni Morrison.  To the women before us, we honor your labor and foundation you laid.  To the women and girls now, let’s journey together.”

Editor note: photo has been change to reflect the present.