Remarks – U.S. Embassy Nassau Woman of Courage Ceremony

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.  It is an honor and a pleasure to welcome you to Liberty Overlook as we mark Women’s History Month and honor Ms. Sheila Culmer, U.S. Embassy Nassau’s 2015 Woman of Courage.

Each year, around this time, the U.S. Department of State and American Embassies around the world celebrate acts of courage and determination by women who have made a difference in their communities and their countries.  The particular details and circumstances of each of these women differ, but they are linked together by their exceptional leadership and resolve in advocating for human rights,

women’s equality, and social progress – sometimes at great personal sacrifice and risk.  This event is one of the highlights of our year.  We always walk away feeling inspired by these women, and more determined to reflect their courage and commitment in our lives and our own communities.  As First Lady Michelle Obama said at a similar event last year, if a woman can fight torture and oppression to get her name on the ballot in Tajikistan; break a glass ceiling and advocate for equality and tolerance in Georgia; go door-to-door, police station to police station, and court-to-court to fight domestic and child abuse in Saudi Arabia, then surely we can summon the courage to help make our own communities and countries better places, whether that means ending wage discrimination in the workplace, fighting gender-based violence in our homes, or confronting any of the small injustices we see every day.  Or perhaps changing a Constitution to provide full legal equality for the women of a country.

As Secretary of State John Kerry reminds us, women’s issues are more than just women’s issues.  They are family issues, security issues, justice issues, issues that matter to all of us — men and women, girls and boys.  Academic research bears this out, demonstrating conclusively what most of us know instinctually: Nations are more secure, more stable, more prosperous, healthier, and yes, happier when women and girls have equal access to education and health care, and are fully engaged in the social, political, and economic fabrics of their societies.

Today, we are gathered to celebrate the work of one individual who has improved lives and given hope to hundreds of young people in this community.  But, before I tell you about this year’s honoree, I want to recognize some of our previous Woman of Courage honorees, women who continue to inspire us with their courage and commitment:

  • Ms. Andrea Archer, who we recognized last year for her role in providing education for teenage mothers;
  • The Honorable Janet Bostwick, who we recognized in 2012 for her role in the women’s labor movement;
  • Fellow diplomat Ms. A. Missouri Sherman-Peter, who we recognized for her long and exemplary career in the Bahamian civil and Foreign Service;
  • Dr. Sandra Dean Patterson, the founder and director of The Crisis Center; and
  • Mrs. Rosa Mae Bain, who we recognized for her work with HIV/AIDs research.

Please join me in a round of applause in honor of these women for their perseverance in the struggle to ensure full access and equality for the people of The Bahamas.

This morning we add a new Woman of Courage to our list.  Ms. Sheila Culmer has been a strong advocate and tireless champion for individuals with disabilities.  A teacher by profession, Ms. Culmer began her career in the 1960s, and began teaching at Stapleton School for the Mentally Retarded in 1971.  She spent the next 27 years there, including 19 years as principal.  She is one of the founding members of the Disabled Persons Organization and has served multiple terms as president.

Recognizing the value of sports in encouraging individuals to believe in themselves and take a more active role in their communities, Ms.  Culmer was instrumental in bringing the Special Olympics to The Bahamas, and became the first national director for Special Olympics.  She also organized the first Caribbean Regional Track and Field Games for persons classified as mentally disabled.

Mrs. Culmer has equally been active in the political arena.  She chaired the Conference Committee on legislation to assist disabled persons, which culminated last year in the passage of the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2014.  This important legislation assists disabled individuals in taking their place as integral members of society, entitled to equal opportunities for education, healthcare, employment and other benefits.

Ms. Culmer also was instrumental in encouraging the government to provide a headquarters location for the Bahamas National Council for Disability.  As an aside, I was happy to learn that the U.S. Embassy’s own Marine Secure Guard detachment helped repair that building when it was first acquired.

Ms. Culmer’s work has provided inspiration and encouragement to many, including parents and caregivers who give tirelessly of themselves, day in and day out, to provide a safe and nurturing environment for disabled children and adults.   In 2013, Ms. Culmer received the prestigious 49th Annual Lady Sassoon Golden Heart Award for a lifetime of service to this community.

It is, therefore, with profound appreciation and great esteem that I ask all of you to please join me in congratulating, and welcoming to the podium, our 2015 Woman of Courage, Ms. Sheila Culmer.