(WASHINGTON) — When Colombian investigative journalist Jineth Bedoya strode into a Colombian prison 12 years ago, she was on the brink of uncovering an extensive arms smuggling network where paramilitary prison officials were sneaking guns to their gang-affiliated inmates.
The local newspaper reporter was supposed to interview a key paramilitary member that day. Instead she was kidnapped, driven three hours away, bound and repeatedly gang-raped.
“Pay attention,” one of her assailants told her. “We are sending a message to the press in Colombia.”
On Thursday, more than a decade after that horrifying event, Bedoya stood beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama as a top investigative reporter for one of Colombia’s premier newspapers and an international leader in investigating and prosecuting crimes against women.
America’s top diplomat awarded her and nine other courageous women from some of the most dangerous and hostile countries in the world with the International Women of Courage Award for their fight for women’s equality.
“Whether pushing for change in the halls of government in the Maldives, the courts of Saudi Arabia, whether making sure women have a voice in Libya’s future and a role in Pakistan’s government, whether enduring imprisonment or abuse for trying to assist other women and girls at risk, these women…are all making a difference in the face of adversity often under the threat of violence,” Clinton told a crowd of female activists and dignitaries at the State Department Thursday in the sixth annual awards ceremony to commemorate International Women’s Day.
Other recipients included Maryam Durani, who has survived multiple assassination attempts as she fights for women’s equality in Afghanistan’s most conservative and hostile region of Kandahar Province; Pricilla de Oliviera Azevedo, a major in the Rio de Janeiro military; and Zin Mar Aung, a pro-democracy activist in Burma.
Hana El Hebshi was honored for passing information from Libya to the international media, helping to take down Moammar Gadhafi. Aneesa Ahmed was awarded for fighting for government intervention to prevent female genital mutilation in the Maldives. Shad Begum received the award for helping to empower Pakistani women to vote and run for office.
Award recipient Samar Badawi was the first Saudi Arabian woman to sue for her right to marry the person she chose and her right to vote in municipal elections. Her case prompted a royal decree allowing women to both vote and run for office.
Hawa Abdallah Mohammed Salih was honored for shining a light on the plight of women in Darfur refugee camps. And Safak Pavey, who lost her hand and leg, received the award for championing the rights of the disabled in Turkey.
“On behalf of my husband and our country I want you to know that you are never, ever alone,” Michelle Obama said at the ceremony. “The United States of America stands with you and we are so incredibly proud of everything you’ve achieved and will continue to fight with you [on] the causes to which you have devoted your lives.”
The 10 women who were honored Thursday flew in from their home countries for the ceremony and will visit 10 cities across the U.S. to spread their message of “justice, peace and freedom,” as award winner Zin Ma Aung said.
Aung, once a student activist, was jailed for 11 years for trying to promote democracy in Burma. She was honored Thursday for teaching and empowering civil rights activists and founding a non-profit to raise awareness of the plight of women in conflict areas.
The emotional ceremony was punctuated by enthusiastic applause and standing ovations.
But the most fervent and sustained uproar of support from the packed crowd came after Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee touched on women’s reproductive rights, a topic that has ignited fierce debate over women’s access to contraception on the floor of Congress and in the campaign rallies of the GOP primary.
“No woman should sit down and allow a man to speak about her reproductive rights,” Gbowee said to raucous applause. “Over time the woman’s movement of this world has mellowed. Our issues and our conversation have become issues of men. I get angry when I think about it.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Steve Almasy, CNN
Ben Westcott, CNN
Angela Dewan and Euan McKirdy, CNN
Ray Sanchez, CNN