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Women who light the way for freedom

Two women, Hala Aldosari, a human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, and Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of Iraq's Parliament, are fighting for democratic values in the Middle East. As both scholar and blogger, Ms. Aldosari focuses on unjust limitations Saudi Arabia places on women. Ms. Dakhil uses her platform as a legislator to draw attention and resources to the plight of the besieged Yazidi minority in Iraq, a group viciously targeted by ISIS.

As documented by Freedom House surveys, the world has experienced a 10-year recession of democracy, with autocracies like Russia and China silencing civil society and exporting their methods of doing so, and sadistic extremists targeting civilians in the Middle East and worldwide. Ms. Aldosari and Ms. Dakhil show that — even in the least democratic region of the world — women can play a crucial role in turning around these trends.

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An expert in public health in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Aldosari was concerned by the lack of awareness of gender-based violence. She began blogging about the issue to ensure Saudi women gained access to knowledge and remedies. Gradually she began to speak out on other issues. In 2013, she helped re-launch the Saudi Women's Driver Campaign.

As Ms. Aldosari's activism grew, her opportunities within Saudi Arabia shrank. She was barred from jobs and professional opportunities. Eventually, she decided to move abroad. Ms. Aldosari is unable to return home for fear of arrest as she continues to boldly speak out on behalf of Saudi women.

Ms. Dakhil's work is close to home. In addition to advocating for Yazidis within Iraq's parliament, she spends 14-hour days driving along dusty roads to meet Yazidi refugees and hear their stories. She takes countless phone calls from Yazidi women and girls who have been kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by ISIS. These women put themselves at enormous risk to call Ms. Dakhil, who does everything within her power to facilitate their escape and raise the world's awareness of their plight.

Women overcome significant barriers to promote change in other regions than the Middle East. In Monterrey, Mexico I recently visited Sister Consuelo Morales, founder of Citizens in Support of Human Rights. For the past two decades she has documented violations of human rights abuses carried out by drug cartels and Mexican security forces and provided critical support to the families of the disappeared. I witnessed her striking ability to mobilize citizens' and journalists' demands for an end to impunity in Mexico.

In the political arena, with her May 20 inauguration as Taiwan's first female President, Tsai Ing-Wen is the most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world. Ms. Tsai led her party in a triumph for democracy: peaceful rotation of power to win control of both the executive and legislative branches of government for the first time. She has worked to promote women's rights and marriage rights for all. She seeks to diversify Taiwan's economic dependence on an autocratic China and to champion transparency in government and business.

Such women worldwide have the talent for envisioning and making change, yet their contributions to building consensus and democracy have been under-recognized. Ms. Aldosari and Ms. Dakhil deserve special recognition for their work to empower marginalized groups because they have done so in the world's single most repressive region.

Their efforts and accomplishments will not be left unnoticed. To mark its 75th anniversary, Freedom House is presenting them with its Freedom Award, which has been given to transformative figures like George Marshall, Jean Monnet, Vaclav Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Ms. Alsodari and Ms. Dakhil receiving the honor highlights women's extraordinary potential to advance democracy not just for woman but all people.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness." The difficulties and loneliness the bearers of light face are daunting. Yet women are potent forces for both women's and men's democratic aspirations as they light up all corners of our world, even some of the darkest ones.

Mark P. Lagon is president of Freedom House, an independent watchdog dedicated to the global expansion of freedom and democracy. His email is lagon@freedomhouse.org.

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