March 07, 2017

Female White Helmets from Syria and Afghan footballer receive Theirworld awards

Theirworld President Sarah Brown with Afghan sportswoman Khalida Popal and Manal from Syria's White Helmets

Photo credit: Stuart Wilson / Getty Images for Theirworld

Laura Oliver

Theirworld communications team

Theirworld honoured some very special women for their courage and determination today at its #RewritingTheCode International Women’s Day Breakfast in London.

The humanitarian work of Syria’s female White Helmets and pioneering achievements of Afghan sportswoman Khalida Popal were recognised today at Theirworld’s #RewritingTheCode International Women’s Day Breakfast.

Manal and Gardenia, two female members of Syria’s Civil Defence force, accepted the Theirworld Hope 2017 award from British Member of Parliament Alison McGovern in honour of their courageous and life-saving missions. 

There are now more than 100 women volunteering for the White Helmets, who offer medical care, rebuild essential infrastructure and carry out search and rescue operations - all in the middle of a war zone.

In Syria, women and girls caught in the conflict have been known to refuse help from male volunteers. The female White Helmets have allowed the organisation to assist more people and for women to take an active role in a relief effort, despite conservative opposition to their participation.

Female members of the White Helmets, who risk their lives to save others

Photo credit: Facebook / The Syria Campaign

“These women are battling every day to save the lives of adults and children caught in a raging conflict in Syria. These women save lives in the midst of brutality and cruelty,” said Alison when presenting the award.

“Today we rewrite the code and honour the women who also form a vital part of Syria’s Civil Defence force. 

Read our coverage of the Theirworld #RewritingTheCode International Women’s Day Breakfast

"Their faces are not so familiar, their names not so well known but they work just as tirelessly as their male counterparts. They represent hope.”

Two teams of female White Helmets were set up in 2014. There are now more than 100 women volunteers, who have allowed the organisation to assist more people and enabled females to take an active role in the relief effort - despite conservative opposition. 

Manal from the White Helmets accepts the Theirworld Hope 2017 award from Alison McGovern

Photo credit: Stuart Wilson / Getty Images for Theirworld

“I know that many of you don’t expect a woman to be in the Syria Civil Defence, as we are not in the media so much," said Manal. 

"The reason for this is that the ladies have some concerns about being captured by the regime forces or harm to their families.

“We are so proud because we are saving more than 85,000 people from under the rubble. But we will be happier if we stop this war and let people go back to their homes and help them rebuild their country.”

The awards were given as part of the International Women’s Day event to kickstart Theirworld’s #RewritingTheCode campaign, which aims to draw attention to the obvious - and less obvious - attitudes preventing girls and women around the world from fulfilling their full potential.   

Khalida Popal received recognition with the Theirworld Challenge 2017 award for her efforts to empower women and highlight the issues they face by encouraging more girls and women to get involved in sport. 

“Today is our day. Tomorrow is our day. Every day is our day, not only the 8th of March. Congratulations for your day and achievements,” said Khalida.

Khalida Popal received recognition with the Theirworld Challenge 2017 award

Photo credit: Stuart Wilson / Getty Images for Theirworld

Khalida established eight women’s football teams in Afghanistan in the 2000s, despite the Taliban banning women from participating in sport or attending matches. 

She became captain of Afghanistan’s first national women’s team in 2007 and continued to use her position to raise awareness of women’s rights. 

She led the team in international tournaments and in the face of strong public opposition at home, where the team was forced to play behind closed doors on a NATO compound.

In 2011 the hostility towards the team was so strong that Khalida had to flee the country and seek asylum in Denmark. 

But her experience has strengthened her resolve to get more women and refugees into sport and she founded Girl Power in 2014. The non-profit, grassroots organisation aims to increase social participation and integration of women through sport and movement. She is also event director of the Afghanistan women’s football committee

“I believe in women power and that’s why I have fought my entire life for women’s rights," she said. 

"I am a woman and I know my strengths, my power ... how my voice and thoughts can change something. Instead of standing against each other, we love to see women standing together."

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