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As Courageous Voice Honoree Aicha Abdoulaye Mahamane took her seat on the stage, a blanket of anticipatory silence fell over the crowd. Seated across from Tahirih CEO and Founder, Layli Miller-Muro, and with 150 people watching keenly, Aicha started at the beginning.

I’m a happy woman. I’m a strong woman. That is who I am. You could say that I was born this way in Niger, in Africa.

As a child, she watched her father beat her mother and his other wives. She soon realized that women were made to, expected to, suffer. They had no identity; whoever they once were was stolen from them by the men who married, controlled, and abused them.

But, Aicha wanted more. She wanted better. She didn’t want the future of the women she knew. When she was 15, her family told her she was to undergo female genital mutilation/cutting – a  painful, dangerous tradition consisting of cutting a woman’s genitalia to prevent her from engaging in premarital sex, which would bring shame upon her family.

She refused.

I said no! I said no because I had seen my sister’s agony. I’d heard of young girls in other villages bleeding to death. My family took away meals as punishment and I looked to my mother for help, but she said, ‘Aicha, I’m only a woman.’ I stood my ground, but my family feared I’d bring further shame on them unless I was married. So, they arranged for me to become the fourth wife to a 52-year-old man I’d never met. That meant no more school, no more friends, no more making my own choices in my life.

Because of Aicha’s resolve to establish a free life, one that consisted of staying true to her own identity, the trajectory of her life irrefutably changed. Her new husband immediately began raping her, beating her if she resisted. She continued to fight. Continued to resist. And he continued to attack her.

After a severe beating that ended in a trip to the hospital, and with the help of her husband’s first wife, Aicha escaped Niger and made her way to the nearby country of Togo. But she was still far from protection.

In January 2004, when I was 19 years old, I finally had a real chance at freedom. I snuck out of Togo and my aunt arranged for me to travel to New York. There, I stayed with a stranger who I met through my aunt’s connections. But he was just another man who saw me as property. I cooked, I cleaned, and again, I was forced into having sex with him. I didn’t speak any English or have any friends or family nearby – I couldn’t leave the house. And because of my past experience with police, I didn’t think I could call them for help. Even the sounds of police sirens would send me into a panic.

There was a small delight that gave Aicha hope – The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

They were happy, they were laughing, and they were all WOMEN! I started to watch every episode, and even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying at first, I liked the way I felt as I watched. Seeing strong, happy women supporting each other … it gave me hope.

When Aicha found out her sister had been killed in Africa, she was devastated. She flew home to Niger for the funeral and spent a year in hiding. But once her former husband found out that she returned, he came after her.

For the second time, she escaped to the United States, and lived with a woman in Maryland who used her for labor, never paying her. She was living, once again, as someone’s slave – the very life she promised herself she wouldn’t allow.

When a friend gave her the name of an organization that could help, Aicha was directed to Tahirih. It took years. Barriers came up at every crossing. But even in the face of a denied asylum application and removal proceedings, Aicha pushed forward – never once wavering in her fight for a life of freedom.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted what my mother never had: the opportunity to be myself, to express my own opinions, to have a choice – to be not ‘just a woman’ but a woman! A woman with the power to support other women!

Aicha is more than a survivor of violence. Aicha is more than a former Tahirih client.

Aicha is a trailblazer. She is a pillar of strength. She is a symbol of hope for women and girls around the world who have endured gender-based persecution and human rights abuses. For women who want better lives for their children, Aicha is a hero.

I want to do my part to ensure that other women who have experienced things like I have can find the same safety and security here in the U.S., so I’ve offered to talk to Congress, and I even reached out to Ellen to see if she might have me on her show! And I want to go back to school, to learn how to better share my story and help people who need to know they are not alone. Now that I know how powerful my voice can be, I want to share it with the world.