The 10 winners of the State Department’s 2015 International Women of Courage award take pride in knowing they have helped improve the lives of many people, even though some risked their jobs, their reputations and even their lives.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell said at the March 6 awards ceremony that the honorees represent the great and brave work that women are doing all over the world.

“Like the amazing women of courage who are here today, any girl can be the one who works for peace, who cares for the sick, who changes laws and outdated notions of gender, who fearlessly confronts extremism, or who pilots a plane.  Any girl can be the one who becomes a woman of courage,” Russell said.

These are the 2015 winners:

  • Niloofar Rahmani, a captain in the Afghan Air Force, is her country’s first woman to fly fixed-wing aircraft. She persisted in her training despite death threats from the Taliban and opposition from her extended family.
  • Nadia Sharmeen, a journalist and women’s rights activist from Bangladesh, was nearly killed by a hostile crowd while covering a rally organized by fundamentalists. Rather than end her career after her editors refused to pay her medical bills, she continues to cover conservative rallies for a new television station.
  • Rosa Julieta Montaño Salvatierra, founder and director of the Bolivian women’s civil society organization Oficina Jurídica para la Mujer, helped transform the rights of women in her country by providing legal aid to more than 30,000 survivors of rape, sexual assault or domestic abuse.
  • May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network in Burma, despite criminal charges, fines and harassment, has led efforts to end discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities. After the 2011 ethnic violence in Kachin province, she founded peace networks and insisted on a role for women in post-conflict rebuilding.
  • Béatrice Epaye, president of the Fondation Voix du Coeur in the Central African Republic, was targeted by Seleka rebels because she sought safe haven for abandoned children who would otherwise be forced to join the rebels. She spoke out for peace and reconciliation while protecting her country’s most vulnerable.
  • Marie Claire Tchecola, a nurse and activist from Guinea, is an Ebola survivor. After being shunned by friends and evicted from her home, she became a passionate advocate for other Ebola survivors who face social stigma.
  • Sayaka Osakabe founded the Matahara Network in Japan to end harassment of pregnant women in her country’s workforce. She helped stop women from being forced to choose between family and career, and transformed the conversation about women’s roles in the Japanese workforce.
  • Arbana Xharra, editor-in-chief of Zeri (one of Kosovo’s leading newspapers), exposed corruption, bribery and ties between extremist groups and local imams and organizations. Despite drawing death threats, Xharra forced her government to address what she uncovered.
  • Tabassum Adnan founded the Khwendo Jirga (Sisters Council) in Pakistan, which aims to stop so-called honor killings, acid attacks and swara (trading women to resolve disputes). She was the first woman invited to participate in the traditionally male grand jirga.
  • Majd Chourbaji, the external relations director for the Syrian organization Women Now for Development Centers, advocated for prisoners’ rights long before she herself was incarcerated. Working behind bars, she taught peace-building and citizenship skills, and organized 150 fellow prisoners to go on strike demanding due process.

These women “kept on going, because for them, staying silent simply isn’t an option,” first lady Michelle Obama said in prepared remarks. “For them, turning away from the injustices they see simply isn’t possible.”

The winners also represent the power of education, the first lady said, but added that 62 million girls worldwide are currently not in school.

The Let Girls Learn initiative aims to promote girls’ education. At its launch, Michelle Obama said the power of education transforms not only the lives of women and girls, but also their families, communities and countries.