Last week, I, along with two other GW Global Communications masters students, was fortunate to attend the 2016 International Women of Courage Awards at the U.S. Department of State as part of their social media meet up to share the events of the day and the stories of the honorees. This year, they honored their 100th woman since beginning the awards in 2007. They honored 14 women from Asia, South and Central America, the Middle East, and Europe. You can read all of their biographies here.
Initially, my intention was to discuss the important contributions these women made to their societies and why they are so deserving of these awards. But, upon hearing Vice President Biden’s keynote address, I found myself reflecting upon the important role our elected officials and other representatives of the U.S. government play in public diplomacy.
Humble, and at times self-deprecating, and of course speaking with his signature charm, Vice President Joe Biden delivered a thirty minute long speech that not only commended the courageous the women in attendance for their work to further equality in their own countries; he also spoke at length about the progress the United States still needs to make in the fight for equality.
“Abuse is abuse is abuse. Period,” the Vice President said to thunderous applause. “We have to change the culture not only here in America, but around the world,” Vice President Biden said.
An important part of public diplomacy is the exchange of ideas and sharing of values that make the world a better place for all. More importantly, I’d argue, is the establishment of credibility and trust between cultures for any kind of public diplomacy to be successful.
When America’s leaders acknowledge that our country shares similar challenges with other nations around the world, and say that we are working to solve those challenges, our word becomes much stronger, and our legitimacy and credibility become deeper. This is particularly true for issues of equality and justice for women, which more often than not have blurred international boundaries.
“In America, we make many mistakes. We don’t treat women as well as we should either,” Biden said. “But, we’re working like the devil on it, to change the culture.”
He later outlined his extensive work on the “It’s On Us” campaign that is taking place on college campuses to empower students to speak up when they know sexual assault, sexual violence, or rape is taking place.
For Americans, stories of challenges facing women in other countries can feel like they are a world away. Stories of abuse in Saudi Arabia, Brazil, or China, on the surface, sound like they are not similar to the challenges facing women in the United States. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As scholars, we often talk about public diplomacy as needing to be dialogic in order for it to be successful. This year’s International Women of Courage honorees stood up against corruption in their governments, fought for fair treatment of transgender persons, and equal economic opportunities for women, among other incredible acts of courage. These are all issues that, in some fashion or another, American women are also facing today.
“Women hold up half the sky. More than that, they’re half the population, slightly higher; they’re half the grey matter in the world; half the brain power; probably more than half the energy,” Biden said. “These are things that drive societies to prosper, to give our children better opportunities than we had in whatever society it is.”
This event at the State Department gave them the opportunity to share the steps they took to overcome these challenges, and generate a dialogue with American policymakers for how to further empower women around the world.
Learning from the challenges these women face and how they are slowly but surely working to overcome them is an important part of an effective public diplomacy dialogue. Each of the honorees, in their own unique way, stand as role models for American girls and women who are fighting for gender equality here in the United States.