The Global Women’s Institute Celebrates a Decade, Honors Champions for Justice

A groundbreaking congresswoman, a group of activists in exile and a crusader against sexual violence were honored at a celebration of the global research institute.

March 15, 2023

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) delivered a stirring keynote at a ceremony commemorating GWI's first decade in action.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) delivered a stirring keynote at a ceremony commemorating GWI's first decade in action. (William Atkins/GW Today)

In a keynote address marking a decade of research and action by the Global Women’s Institute (GWI),  U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) called GWI “an important catalytic force” for creating policies that elevate the voices, experiences and capabilities of women leaders, not just in the United States, but globally.

“You showed the world what it looks like to stop gender-based violence and, crucially, how to achieve that change,” Jayapal said during an emotionally powerful ceremony at the George Washington University last Thursday. “And the research that's generated here actually does play a direct role in crafting stronger evidence-based policies and preparing the next generation of leaders to create an even stronger movement.”

In its first decade in action, GWI’s major achievements include the first population-based studies for the prevention of violence against women and girls (VAWG) in conflict-affected areas in South Sudan, a 20-year study in Nicaragua proving VAWG is preventable and its recent selection to lead the research consortium of “What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls–Impact at Scale,” a seven-year, $82 million international initiative aiming to build global knowledge on effective VAWG prevention.

“The institute is a powerful agent of change in working to prevent and end violence against women and girls, and to create a world where women and girls have the same rights and opportunities as men and boys and are free from discrimination, violence and coercion,” President Mark S. Wrighton said in his introduction to the event.

Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the first Indian-American woman to serve in the House of Representatives, Jayapal received one of three inaugural GWI Champions for Justice awards. Other awardees were Brisa De Angulo, a Bolivian activist against sexual violence and founder of a Breeze of Hope, and 33 Nicaraguan women recently deported and stripped of citizenship after being held as political prisoners. NBC News reporter Zinhle Essamuah, B.A. ’15, M.A. ’17, emceed the event.

Founding director Mary Ellsberg remembered GWI’s beginnings as a small team working to find its place among a network of working feminist scholars and activists at GW. “Where we ultimately felt that we could make a contribution and the greatest impact was to generate rigorous evidence, and to work with our partners in the women's movement to use this evidence to make real change.”

Ellsberg also announced the formation of the GWI Catalyst Fund to ensure the long-term stability of the institute’s work. Founding donor Lauren Fite, co-chair of the GWI Leadership Council and the parent of a GW graduate, spoke in a video address about her passion for women’s education and about the importance of Ellsberg’s and GWI’s work.

“I've seen firsthand the meaningful work that Mary and her colleagues do, and it is important to me to ensure that this work continues for years to come,” Fite said. “The vision of the Catalyst Fund is to ensure that our most important work can move forward without delay and that critical opportunities for impact can be pursued without the need to first secure external grant funding.”

Ellsberg said the fund will provide crucial support as GWI continues to evolve and innovate. “We are excited to continue our mission of bridging research and action for the next 10 years.”

Global Women's Institute's 10th Year Anniversary Celebration and Award Ceremony from The George Washington University on Vimeo.

Nowhere were the stakes of GWI's mission clearer or more poignant than in the stories of the night’s honorees. In February, 33 women political prisoners from Nicaragua were abruptly released from prison, having been stripped of their nationality and legal personhood in Nicaragua, and deported to the United States. The women—of all ages, classes and occupations—were arrested for nonviolent activism against the authoritarian government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. GWI awarded this group another Champions of Justice award, and nine of the 33 were able to attend the ceremony and appear onstage. (Not all the women wished to be named or appear publicly for fear of reprisals against their families still in Nicaragua.)

Two of these women, Maria Esperanza Sánchez and Tamara Dávila, spoke in Spanish about what they had endured and their continued commitment to justice and equality. Sánchez spoke of the group’s pride in their homeland and their collective promise not to abandon the fight for justice in Nicaragua. Dávila, an academic and political activist as well as a mother, touched on the Kafkaesque nightmare the ex-prisoners and their families were undergoing, particularly those with young children. The parents cannot re-enter Nicaragua; the children, because their parents have no legal personhood, cannot obtain their guardians’ signatures on documents allowing them to travel to the U.S. As they strive for justice and reunification, Dávila said, the support of other activists, other women, and institutions like GWI help “share the burden.”

Elena La Fulana, Mary Ellsberg and Nicaraguan activists
After accepting their awards, the recently released political prisoners sang along with Nicaraguan-American musician Elena La Fulana (far left) and GWI Director Mary Ellsberg (second from left) to folk favorite “Nicaragua, Nicaragüita” by Carlos Mejía Godoy. (William Atkins/GW Today)

While the final Champions for Justice awardee, Brisa De Angulo, was not able to attend in person, her parents and three young children accepted the award in her stead. De Angulo survived sexual violence from a relative in her childhood and has spent decades fighting for justice from the Bolivian government and justice system. As a teenager, she founded A Breeze of Hope, which at the time was the only center in Bolivia offering support to survivors of childhood sexual violence. A Breeze of Hope is now an advanced center providing healing and legal support to child survivors and their families. De Angulo herself recently won a landmark victory from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the Bolivian government for her treatment.

In her keynote, Jayapal summarized the institute’s personal and global impact by pointing to the interconnectedness of her own story. “I’m not a woman on Monday, an immigrant on Tuesday, a mom on Wednesday and a worker on Thursday—I’m all of those things all of the time,” she said.