My good friend Mazlan Othman has taken Malaysia to new heights as the pioneer of Malaysia’s space exploration programme. Deborah Henry has used her platform to give a voice to refugee children. Environmentalist Tengku Zatashah has led the charge against single-use plastics. And for more than three decades, Ivy Josiah has advocated women’s rights, punctuated by her efforts to set up the Women’s Aid Organisation.
March marks the celebration of Women’s History Month, a time when we reflect on the significant achievements of our predecessors and the ongoing work of our contemporaries.
This year in the US we are also celebrating the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment which finally recognised the right to vote for women – thanks in large part to the efforts of suffragettes. A hundred years ago, these brave women included my great-grandmother, Martha Brewer, who marched with her fellow suffragettes in New York City. My family still has the “Votes for Women” sash she wore in support of the cause.
I like to think that Martha would be proud that 100 years after her efforts, her great-granddaughter would be appointed by the US president to serve as ambassador to Malaysia.
Each year since 2006, the US government has recognised a collection of exceptional women from around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk. These inspiring women are honoured each March at the US State Department with the International Women of Courage (Iwoc) award.
Past honourees include Chinese rights campaigner Guo Jianmei and Naw K’nyaw Paw, a peace activist who works for women’s rights in Myanmar. Other recent Iwoc recipients include Sister Orla Treacy, an Irish nun who advocates against child marriage and runs a school for children in South Sudan, and Laxmi Agarwal, an Indian acid attack survivor, champion for rights of acid attack victims, and a TV host.
This year, I am proud to announce that for the third time in the history of the award, a Malaysian woman will join the prestigious ranks of International Women of Courage.
Following the February 2017 kidnapping of her husband, Raymond Koh, Susanna Liew has fought tirelessly on behalf of Malaysians who have disappeared under similar circumstances. Despite harassment and death threats, she pursues justice for Koh, Amri Che Mat, Joshua Hilmy, and Ruth Sitepu to defend and honour their rights as fellow citizens and human beings.
Following significant public advocacy by Liew, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) opened a public inquiry into the abduction and the separate but similar disappearances of Amri, Joshua, and Ruth. After months of deliberation, Suhakam announced on April 3, 2019 its unanimous and “final decision” that Koh and Amri were victims “of forced disappearance by state agents, namely Special Branch”. Suhakam’s inquiry into Joshua and Ruth’s disappearance is ongoing.
Liew’s recognition as an International Woman of Courage underscores the firm commitment by the US and the international community to support the pursuit of justice, rule of law, and commitment to minority rights and religious freedom.
Throughout history, the contributions of women were often unsung and unnoticed, but women like Liew remind us that courageous women have the power to create meaningful change. This month we remember the contributions of these brave women – not just to celebrate their achievements, but to inspire the next generation to pursue justice for all.
Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir is the US ambassador to Malaysia.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.