Ten years ago, Mary Akrami received the International Woman of Courage (IWOC) award by the U.S. Department of State. Mary Akrami is the Director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, a shelter for women escaping domestic violence and forced marriages in several provinces. The Center provides comprehensive assistance to survivors of gender-based violence—including legal advice, literacy classes, psychological counseling, and basic skills training. It also engages men through advocacy to promote the human rights of women and support their participation in peace processes. Under Ms. Akrami's leadership, several women at the shelter have made the virtually unprecedented move of denouncing their abusers publicly and filing court cases against them.
We caught up with Ms. Akrami to reflect on her work since receiving the IWOC award ten years ago.
1. In a perfect world, women and girls would:
Get the right to live, have access to health, education, own and control property, choose their profession and life partners and serve others as per their own wants and wishes.
2. In three words, what does courage mean to you?
Wisdom, knowledge and commitment to change the negative into positive
3. What’s your favorite memory from the International Women of Courage Award ceremony and/or your time on the exchange program?
It was really a great occasion for me to see women from other parts of the world who were granted the IWOC award. But one thing which will remain forever in my memory is that when I received the award and when I was asked to share my views, I told about the sufferings of Afghan women and at that time I burst in tears which was mix feelings of joys and sorrows.
4. What other International Woman of Courage stands out to you from your time in the United States?
I admire all of their work and support for women and civil society movements around the world.
5. How did the International Women of Courage Award change your work?
It increased my courage and I kept the risky work that I do with more strength of mind. I got increase in my fame and got moral and financial support from different organizations for keeping my work continued.
6. What’s the secret to getting things done and making progress on the issues that matter to you?
Needs-based, well-planned and participatory approaches with the grace of God are the secrets that gave me strength to get things done successfully.
7. What do you think is the biggest barrier to progress in your work?
Finding likeminded people and sometimes when the others do not understand me on time, changing priorities of donors’ policies and priorities bring frustration which disturbs me and my team and create a serious hurdle.
8. What’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of? Are there any projects you’ve worked on since the award?
I feel proud when I work for those needy women who are expelled by their loved ones and those who are not being supported by anyone due to social pressure or fear to get a bad name. I mean I am proud to help those women and girls face the challenges of their society (where they are kept as subordinate to the men) and fight for their rights.
After the award, I worked with the U.S. Department of State and got a chance to support women who had been trafficked from neighboring countries. It was really hard to talk to the top level diplomats from the countries of their origins.
9. Who is your role model and why?
One of my friends, Noor Marjan. She is from Pakistan, belongs to Pashtun tribe and despite various restrictions she has been working for the last 18 years promoting women’s rights in the Khyber Pakhtoomkhwa province, a place known for its rigid cultural norms. She also worked in Afghanistan for 7 years and still supports us when we need her.
10. What should the next generation of women leaders know about leadership and courage? What can they do to continue your work?
They must have vision (based on the needs and priorities of laymen) knowledge, strong communication, wisdom and analytical skills as well as the ability to include others.