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Three Women Get US Human Rights Award

Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, pictured in 2006, was one of three women awarded the Lantos Human Rights Prize on Thursday in Washington.
Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, pictured in 2006, was one of three women awarded the Lantos Human Rights Prize on Thursday in Washington.
Three Women Get US Human Rights Award
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Three women with Muslim backgrounds have won an important international human-rights prize.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and Rebiya Kadeer have been targets of violence because of their support for human rights.

The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice presented the awards in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. It called the women “fearless leaders, reformers and rebels who have been willing to defy social and cultural norms to speak out against human rights abuses.”

It said the women “have faced down personal danger to stand up for the vulnerable and persecuted.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to undergo female genital mutilation in Somalia. More than 125 million females have had their genitals removed and sutured, says the World Health Organization. Most of them are younger than 15.

Ali’s father forced her to marry a family member. She fled to The Netherlands where she worked as a cleaner. She became a translator and later was elected to the Dutch Parliament. She has spent years fighting for women’s rights. She says no religion or culture should be used to justify abuses against women.

She said she felt responsible to say something about those who use religion as a tool for hatred, rape and killing. And she said she wanted to “do something about it in the most peaceful ways.”

Death threats have not stopped her from supporting the rights of women, the foundation says.

Irshad Manji was born in Uganda, but she moved to Canada at age 4. She grew up in a violent household. By the time she was 14, she was removed from an Islamic school because she asked too many questions.

So, she began studying Islam without a teacher. She said her independent study helped her learn that she did not have to reject her faith to believe in freedom and rights. She has been a leader in efforts to reform Islam for many years.

She has received so many death threats that the windows in her apartment are bulletproof. Muslim extremists have demanded she be executed.

Manji, 46, said the award is about more than Islam. She said it is about all human beings.

Rebiya Kadeer is known as the “Mother of all Uighurs.” Uighurs are a group of Muslims in northwest China. They say they have been abused by the Chinese government for many years.

She grew up in rural China and was very poor. But she formed businesses and became rich.

She once held important political positions in China. But in 1999, she was arrested and charged with giving secret information to a person outside of China and jailed.

Kadeer was released from prison in 2005 and moved to the United States. She is the president of the World Uighur Congress. The 69-year-old has strongly criticized Chinese officials and their treatment of Chinese-Muslims.

She said, “The Uighur issue is not a Uighur problem. It is a Chinese government problem -- a situation generated by systematic denial to Uighurs of fundamental human rights and freedoms.”

The award is named for U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos. He was the only survivor of the Holocaust to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He strongly supported human rights causes during almost 30 years in Congress.

The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice is a non-profit group. It has given a human rights award yearly since 2009.

Among those who have been given the award are the Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama, Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This is the first year it has been given to three women of Muslim backgrounds.

I’m Mario Ritter.

This story was reported by Alberto Pimienta in Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the story into VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

background – n. the experiences, knowledge, education, etc., in a person's past

norm – n. standards of proper or acceptable behavior

face down – expression to confront someone in a resolute or determined manner

stand up for – expression to take the side of someone or something; to defend someone or something.

female genital mutilation – n. the cutting, or partial or total removal, of the external female genitalia for religious, cultural or other non-medical reasons

suture – v. to sew together (a cut, wound, etc.)

translator – n. a person who changes words written or spoken in one language into a different language

bulletproof – adj. made to stop bullets from going through

systematic – adj. using a careful system or method; done according to a system

Holocaust – n. the killing of millions of Jews and other people by the Nazis during World War II