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International Women’s Day Puts Spotlight on Victims, Activists, Heroes

Civic and governmental organizations around the world are preparing to recognize and celebrate International Women’s Day on Friday.

 

International Women’s Day is a more than 100-year-old celebration of women’s social, economic, cultural and political successes worldwide while also calling for gender equality.

 

It falls on the same day every year, March 8, and brings together governments, women’s organizations, businesses and charities. Cities and towns around the world mark the day with rallies, conferences, art and cultural projects, and lectures.

 

It began in 1908 when 15,000 women garment workers went on strike and marched through the streets of New York, demanding shorter work hours, better pay and voting rights. In 1910, a German woman named Clara Zetkin suggested the declaration of a Women’s Day at an international conference attended by 100 women. The idea was accepted unanimously.

 

In 1911, it was celebrated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. More than 1 million women and men attended demonstrations in support of a woman’s right to work, vote, study and hold public office.

The United Nations officially recognized International Women’s Day for the first time in 1975. In 2011, then-U.S. President Barack Obama took Women’s Day a step further, declaring March Women’s History Month.

 

Since the day is not country-, group- or organization-specific, the focus for each year’s celebration varies widely, but all are centered around the myriad issues faced by women around the world.

Violence, other dangers

 

Ahead of the International Women’s Day, the International Rescue Committee has released a report on the five most dangerous places in the world to be an adolescent girl. Taking into consideration data on child marriage, adolescent birth rates, literacy, rates of violence and child labor, the IRC named Niger, Yemen, Bangladesh, South Sudan and the Central African Republic as the most dangerous for young girls.

 

Bangladesh, South Sudan and the Central African Republic led the group in gender-based violence. The IRC noted that 65 percent of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, making it one of the highest rates in the world.

In Nigeria, the threat to girls comes in the form of child marriages. The IRC estimates 75 percent of Nigerian girls under the age of 18 are married.

Wars and ethnic conflicts around the world are being recognized this year as the main cause of sexual and gender-based violence. The United Nations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent last month joined forces to end the use of rape as a weapon of war.

 

“Let me be clear. Sexual and gender-based violence in conflict is not only a horrendous and life-changing crime, most often perpetrated against women and girls. It is also used as a tactic of war, to terrorize families, dehumanize communities and destabilize societies, so that they struggle to recover for years or even decades after the guns fall silent,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.

 

Other world leaders have also decided to take on gender-based violence.

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio recently declared rape a national emergency and warned that anyone caught having sexual relations with a minor could face up to life in prison.

“Each month, hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assaults are being reported in this country. These despicable crimes of sexual violence are being committed against our women, children and even babies,” he said.

Activism in politics, society

Last year’s midterm elections in the United States saw a record 117 women elected to Congress. Unfortunately, such strides are a lot harder in other countries.

 

In Haiti, where the constitution stipulates that 30 percent of lawmakers be women, that is far from a reality.

“The fight we are waging in the parliament aims to raise the awareness of my fellow colleagues so that they also fight for this equality. We are only four women [lawmakers], but we represent a country full of women,” Haiti’s only woman senator, Dieudonne Luma Etienne, told VOA.

 

In Saudi Arabia, where women only last year won the right to drive, the government has been accused of using its counterterrorism laws to silence activists, including women.

A panel of U.N. rights experts on Monday called on the kingdom to release defenders who they said were unjustly held, including rights lawyer Walid Abu al-Kahir, poet Ashraf Fayadh and women activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Israa al-Ghomgham.

Zaynab al-Khawaja of the Gulf Center for Human Rights told the panel: “We highlight some of the torture methods that are being used in Saudi Arabia — electrocution, flogging, sometimes whipping — on the thighs, for example — sexual assault, where some women human rights defenders have been stripped, have been groped, have been photographed naked, some while handcuffed, and others while blindfolded.”

International recognition

On International Women’s Day in 2007, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice established the International Women of Courage Award to be presented to women who have shown leadership, courage and resourcefulness. U.S. embassies around the world can recommend a woman as a candidate. 

First lady Melania Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo honored 10 women Thursday. The honorees were Razia Sultana from Bangladesh; Moumina Houssein Darar of Djibouti; Mama Maggie of Egypt; Sister Orla Treacy of Ireland; Col. Khalida Khalaf Hanna al-Twal of Jordan; Olivera Lakico of  Montenegro; Naw K’nyaw Paw of Myanmar; Flor de Maria Vega Zapata of Peru; Marini de Livera of Sri Lanka; and Anna Aloys Henga of Tanzania. 

The winners included human rights activists, police officers, lawyers, a nun and an investigative journalist. 

The U.S. State Department has so far recognized more than 120 women from more than 65 countries for advocating for human rights, women’s rights, peace and government transparency. 

Women’s rights through arts

 

International Women’s Day celebrations also include a lighter, brighter side of women’s lives. Several international groups have chosen to shine a light on women they consider heroes.

The U.N.’s theme this year is, “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change,” highlighting ways to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women.

 

On its website, the U.N. has collected stories of women who have made a difference in their communities. Stories such as that of Nur Nahar, a refugee from Myanmar who has taken it upon herself to mentor other women fleeing to refugee camps in Bangladesh, and Colombian Mila Rodriguez, who founded an all-women group to promote peace and Afro-Colombian music.

The humanitarian nonprofit Care turned to celebrities for a campaign that poses the question, “Who puts the #HerInHERO for you?” Ahead of International Women’s Day, Care released a video with prominent women answering that question with empowering words such as “Strong,” “Bold,” “Passionate” and “Courageous” emblazoned on the screen.

A female hero is also arriving at American theaters on International Women’s Day as Disney subsidiary Marvel Studio releases Captain Marvel, its first female-led superhero film.

 

VOA’s Lisa Schlein, Mariama Diallo and Jacquelin Belizaire contributed to this report.

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SpaceX Capsule Set to Splash Down Friday After Space Station Stop

An unmanned capsule from Elon Musk’s SpaceX was due to return to Earth on Friday after a short-term stay on the International Space Station, capping the first orbital test mission in NASA’s long-delayed quest to resume human space flight from U.S. soil later this year.

A SpaceX rocket had launched the 16-foot-tall capsule Saturday morning from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a five-day mission on the orbital outpost, Crew Dragon was set to autonomously detach about 2:30 a.m. EST (0730 GMT) Friday and descend to Earth for an 8:45 a.m. splash-down off Florida’s Cape Canaveral coast.

Officials at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration will scrutinize the performance of the SpaceX capsule’s parachute deployment and its buoyancy after splash-down — two of the design and functionality concerns first reported by Reuters in February.

Musk, also co-founder of electric car maker Tesla Inc, will be watching closely. “I say hypersonic re-entry is probably my biggest concern,” he told reporters after the launch, referring to the capsule reaching thousands of miles per hour as it goes through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The first-of-its-kind mission, ahead of SpaceX’s crewed test flight slated for June, brought 400 pounds of test equipment to the space station, including a dummy named Ripley, outfitted with sensors around its head, neck, and spine to monitor how a flight would feel for a human.

The space station’s three-member crew greeted the capsule Sunday morning, with U.S. astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques entering Crew Dragon’s cabin to carry out air quality tests and inspections.

The capsule’s approach as seen on the Earth’s horizon from the station represented “the dawn of a new era in human spaceflight,” McClain tweeted Sunday.

By Thursday, the space station crew bid farewell to Ripley and closed the hatch ahead of Dragon’s Friday morning departure.

NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co $6.8 billion in all to build competing rocket and capsule systems to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil, something not possible since the U.S. Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011.

The launch systems are aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets for $80 million-per-seat rides to the $100 billion orbital research laboratory, which flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Reuters the cost per seat on the Boeing or SpaceX systems would be lower than for the shuttle or Soyuz.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Facebook’s Vision of Future? Looks Like Chinese App WeChat

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is taking the social media company in a new direction by focusing on messaging. Chinese tech giant Tencent got there years ago with its app WeChat.

Zuckerberg outlined his vision to give people ways to communicate privately, by stitching together Facebook’s various services so users can contact each other across all of the apps.

That sounds strikingly similar to WeChat, which has become essential for daily life in China. WeChat, or Weixin as it’s known in Chinese, combines functions and services that in the West are done by a number of separate companies — think of Facebook and its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram services combined with PayPal and Uber.

WeChat, launched in 2011, has the usual chat features — instant messaging and voice and video calling, though it doesn’t employ top-notch encryption like Facebook’s Whatsapp. Here’s a look at what else it does.

Mobile money

The WeChat Pay digital wallet is one big reason the app has become an indispensable part of life for people in China. By linking a credit card or bank account, users can pay for almost anything: movie tickets, food delivery orders, and subway and bus tickets.

You can split restaurant bills with your friends, pay your electricity bill, store digital coupons, and donate to charities. There’s a “quick pay” function that lets users scan a matrix barcode to pay instead of pulling out cash or a payment card.

You can also hail a ride from Didi Chuxing, China’s equivalent of Uber.

And in a uniquely Chinese touch, WeChat users can send each other virtual “hong bao” or “red packets,” money that is traditionally gifted in red envelopes during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Social

The app hosts group chats where users can discuss topics like sports, technology, social issues, investment ideas, celebrities, breaking news and beyond. WeChat Moments is a scrolling social media feed where users can write posts and share photos and videos.

The app rolled out a new feature this year, Time Capsule, that removes user videos after 24 hours, in an apparent attempt to mimic Facebook’s Stories feature.

Users can also send friends digital stickers, get access to online games and find out who’s nearby by shaking their phone.

Companies and organizations both inside and outside China can use the app for marketing by setting up an official account. Travel booking platform AirBnb, luxury goods company Chanel and Chinese tech giant Huawei are among brands with a presence on WeChat.

The Chinese model

WeChat and Weixin had nearly 1.1 billion users as of September, up 2.3 percent from the previous quarter and 10 percent from the previous year, according to its most recent quarterly earnings report.

It is wildly popular in mainland China and less so in other countries, which is unsurprising because the communist leaders in Beijing have blocked its citizens from accessing Facebook and other Silicon Valley services for years.

But there’s one thing that WeChat doesn’t let users do: Speak freely. Politically sensitive posts are regularly scrubbed from the service, illustrating how the app has become a key part of China’s censorship regime because of its huge user base and outsize social influence. Hong Kong University researchers found that about 11,000 articles were removed from WeChat last year, a number that doesn’t include posts blocked before publication by automatic keyword filters.

WeChat also lacks so-called end-to-end encryption, considered the gold standard for privacy and used by Facebook and other services like Signal and Apple’s iMessages.

Chinese dissidents and activists have long suspected that authorities are able to monitor what they’ve been saying on the app. The company, however, has denied it keeps a record of user chats.

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MSF: Community Mistrust Hampers Ebola Fight in Eastern Congo

The charity Doctors Without Borders warns a climate of deepening mistrust and suspicion in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is hampering efforts to bring an Ebola epidemic under control. The outbreak, which started, last year, has killed more than 500 people in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.

Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, has suspended its Ebola activities in Katwa and Butembo in North Kivu Province.

This follows attacks on two of its treatment centers last week. In the last month alone, the agency says more than 30 attacks and security incidents have taken place in this volatile area.

International MSF president Joanne Liu says the Ebola epidemic, the largest ever in DRC, is taking place amid growing political, social and economic grievances. She says many communities believe Ebola is being used as an excuse for political maneuvers.

Liu says the decision to exclude two areas — Beni and Butembo — from voting in the December presidential elections has only added to the suspicion that Ebola is being used as a political tool.

“The use of coercion adds fuel to this, using police to force people into complying with health measures is not only unethical, it is totally counterproductive,” she said. “The communities are not the enemy. Ebola is a common enemy.”

Latest reports from the World Health Organization put the number of Ebola cases in eastern Congo at 907, including 569 deaths.

Liu tells VOA the government is painting the Ebola epidemic as a security emergency. She says MSF worries about the disease being framed as an issue of public order.

“We think as physicians that it is an epidemic, an infectious disease issue and that we need to treat patients and not as an enemy of the nation,” she said. “People need to feel that we are with them and we want the best for their care. And, that they want to be in our center because they believe that is going to be the best way to fight Ebola.”

Liu says coercion must not be used as a way to track and treat patients, to enforce safe burials or decontaminate homes. She says communities must be treated with respect and understanding. She says patients must be treated as such, and not as some kind of biothreat.

 

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Microsoft Says Iran-Linked Hackers Targeted Businesses

Microsoft has detected cyberattacks linked to Iranian hackers that targeted thousands of people at more than 200 companies over the past two years.

That’s according to a Wall Street Journal report Wednesday that the hacking campaign stole corporate secrets and wiped data from computers.

Microsoft told the Journal the cyberattacks affected oil-and-gas companies and makers of heavy machinery in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Germany, the United Kingdom, India and the U.S., and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Microsoft attributed the attacks to a group it calls Holmium, and which other security researchers call APT33. Microsoft says it detected Holmium targeting more than 2,200 people with phishing emails that can install malicious code.

Iran is denying involvement. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, says the allegations are coming from a private company and such reports “are essentially ads, not independent or academic studies, and should be taken at face value.”

 

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R. Kelly Says ex-Wife Destroyed His Name, Others Stole Money

Embattled R&B star R. Kelly angrily blamed his ex-wife for “destroying” his name and claimed other people stole from his bank accounts during new portions of an interview that aired Thursday, a day after he was sent to jail for not paying child support.

Kelly, who is also facing felony charges that allege he sexually abused three girls and a woman in Chicago years ago, shouted and cried as he spoke with Gayle King of “CBS This Morning.” He said his ex-wife was lying when she accused him of domestic abuse and his voice broke as he asked: “How can I pay child support if my ex-wife is destroying my name and I can’t work?”

The 52-year old singer was jailed Wednesday after he said he couldn’t afford to pay $161,000 in back child support. He said he had “zero” relationship with his three children but knows they love him.

The interview, which was recorded earlier this week, marked the first time Kelly has spoken publicly since his arrest last month in the sexual abuse case. In segments that aired Wednesday, Kelly whispered, cried and ranted while pleading with viewers to believe that he never had sex with anyone under age 17 and never held anyone against their will — likely hoping the raw interview would help sway public opinion.

The interview also marked the first time he addressed allegations in the Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired in January and alleged he held women captive and ran a “sex cult.”

Experts said Kelly’s appearance was also risky and could backfire if it gives prosecutors more information to use against him at trial. That’s why most defense attorneys urge clients to keep quiet.

“In my history as a prosecutor, I loved it when a defendant would say things or make comments about his or her defense,” said Illinois Appellate Judge Joseph Birkett, who said he did not watch the Kelly interview and was speaking only as a former prosecutor. “I would document every word they said … (and) I could give you example after example where their statements backfired.”

There have been cases in which people who spoke up pointed to evidence that ultimately helped win their freedom, but “historically it’s a bad idea,” Birkett said.

A recent example of where such an interview might have done more harm than good was in the case against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who was charged with falsely reporting a racist, anti-gay attack against him in Chicago. In charging documents, prosecutors cited statements he made during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” identifying two people in a photo of the surveillance video as his attackers. The two brothers pictured in the photo later told police that Smollett had paid them to stage the attack because he wanted a raise and to further his career, prosecutors say.

In Kelly’s case, he and his attorney might have decided they had nothing to lose after the Lifetime series, said Fred Thiagarajah, a prominent Newport Beach, California, attorney and former prosecutor.

“A lot of the public already thinks he’s guilty, and there is a very negative image of him, so the only thing he might think he can do is try to change their minds,” Thiagarajah said. If the evidence against him is overwhelming, “this kind of interview might be kind of a Hail Mary” to influence a potential jury pool.

But the dangers of such an interview might outweigh any benefits if Kelly locked himself into a particular defense, Thiagarajah said, adding: “He may not know all the evidence against him.”

In the CBS interview, for example, he denied ever having sex with anyone under 17, even though he married the late singer Aaliyah when she was 15. A videotape given to prosecutors in his current case purports to show Kelly having sex with a girl who repeatedly says she’s 14. And police in Detroit are looking into a woman’s claims that Kelly had sex with her in that city in 2001 when she was 13.

Kelly’s attorney, Steve Greenberg, has said his client did not “knowingly” have sex with underage girls. He wasn’t immediately available Thursday to comment on the Detroit allegations.

Thiagarajah said he might allow a client to do such an interview — but only if he were confident the client could keep his emotions in check and “stick to a script.”

“If you get someone who is ranting and raving, I would never let that kind of person ever do an interview,” he said.

On Wednesday’s broadcast, Kelly’s emotions swung wildly as he explained he was simply someone with a “big heart” who was betrayed by liars who hoped to cash in.

In a particularly dramatic moment, he angrily stood up and started pacing, his voice breaking as he yelled, “I didn’t do this stuff! This is not me!” He cried as he hit his hands together, saying, “I’m fighting for my (expletive) life.”

He insisted people were trying to ruin his 30-year career, but then said his fight was “not about music.”

“I’m trying to have a relationship with my kids and I can’t do it” because of the sexual abuse allegations, he shouted. “You all just don’t want to believe it.”

Hours later, Kelly went to the child-support hearing “expecting to leave. He didn’t come here to go to jail,” said his publicist, Darryll Johnson. Johnson said Kelly was prepared to pay as much as $60,000. He said Kelly did not have the whole amount because he has not been able to work.

A spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office said Kelly would not be released from jail until he pays the full child support debt. His next hearing was scheduled for next Wednesday.

Kelly spent a weekend in jail after his Feb. 22 arrest in Chicago before someone posted his $100,000 bail. His defense attorney said at the time that Kelly’s finances were “a mess.”

After Wednesday’s hearing, the publicist said that the singer “feels good” about the TV interview.

Interviews with two women who live with Kelly — Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary — also are set to air. Savage’s parents insist she is being held against her will. Kelly suggested during the interview that her parents were in it for the money and blamed them for his relationship with their daughter, saying they brought her to watch him perform when she was a teenager.

A lawyer representing the couple bristled at the allegation, saying Timothy and Jonjelyn Savage never asked for or received money from Kelly. The couple said they have not spoken to their 23-year-old daughter for two years. They spoke later that day.

“At no point did this family sell their daughter to anyone or provide their daughter for anything for money,” attorney Gerald Griggs said Wednesday during a news conference.

Kelly acknowledged in the interview that he had done “lots of things wrong” when it comes to women, but he said he had apologized. The singer blamed social media for fueling the allegations against him. He also said that all of his accusers are lying.

The 52-year-old recording artist has been trailed for decades by allegations that he violated underage girls and women and held some as virtual slaves. Kelly has consistently denied any sexual misconduct and was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008. Those charges centered on a graphic video that prosecutors said showed him having sex with a girl as young as 13.

He has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse.

Rising from poverty on Chicago’s South Side, Kelly broke into the R&B scene in 1993 with his first solo album, “12 Play,” which produced such popular sex-themed songs as “Your Body’s Callin’” and “Bump N’ Grind.” He has written numerous hits for himself and other artists, including Celine Dion, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. One of his best-known hits is “I Believe I Can Fly.”

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Facebook’s Vision of Future Looks a Lot Like China’s WeChat

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is taking the social media company in a new direction by focusing on messaging. Chinese tech giant Tencent got there years ago with its app WeChat.

Zuckerberg outlined his vision to give people ways to communicate privately, by stitching together Facebook’s various services so users can contact each other across all of the apps.

That sounds strikingly similar to Tencent Holdings’ WeChat, which has become essential for daily life in China. WeChat, or Weixin as it’s known in Chinese, combines functions and services that in the West are done separately by a number of separate companies — think of Facebook and its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram services combined with PayPal and Uber.

WeChat, launched in 2011, has the usual chat features — instant messaging and voice and video calling. But there’s a lot more. Here’s a look at what else it does.

Mobile money

The WeChat Pay digital wallet is one big reason the app has become an indispensable part of life for people in China. By linking a credit card or bank account, users can pay for almost anything: movie tickets, food delivery orders and subway and bus tickets.

You can split restaurant bills with your friends, pay your electricity bill, store digital coupons, and donate to charities. There’s a “quick pay” function that lets users scan a matrix barcode to pay instead of pulling out cash or a payment card.

You can also hail a ride from Didi Chuxing, China’s equivalent of Uber.

And in a uniquely Chinese touch, WeChat users can send each other virtual “hong bao” or “red packets,” money that is traditionally gifted in red envelopes during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Social

The app hosts group chats where users can discuss topics like sports, technology, social issues, investment ideas, celebrities, breaking news and beyond. WeChat Moments is a scrolling social media feed where users can write posts and share photos and videos.

The app rolled out a new feature this year, Time Capsule, that removes user videos after 24 hours, in an apparent attempt to mimic Facebook’s Stories feature.

Users can also send friends digital stickers, get access to online games and find out who’s nearby by shaking their phone.

Companies and organizations both inside and outside China can use the app for marketing by setting up an official account. Travel booking platform AirBnb, luxury goods company Chanel and Chinese tech giant Huawei are among brands with a presence on WeChat.

The Chinese model

WeChat and Weixin had nearly 1.1 billion users as of September, up 2.3 percent from the previous quarter and 10 percent from the previous year, according to its most recent quarterly earnings report .

It is wildly popular in mainland China and less so in other countries, which is unsurprising because the communist leaders in Beijing have blocked its citizens from accessing Facebook and other Silicon Valley services for years.

But there’s one thing that WeChat doesn’t let users do: speak freely. Politically sensitive posts are regularly scrubbed from the service, illustrating how the app has become a key part of China’s censorship regime because of its huge user base and outsize social influence. Hong Kong University researchers found that about 11,000 articles were removed from WeChat last year, a number that doesn’t include posts blocked before publication by automatic keyword filters.

Chinese dissidents and activists have long suspected that authorities are able to monitor what they’ve been saying on the app. The company, however, has denied it keeps a record of user chats.

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Human Rights Campaign to Honor Christina Aguilera

The nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization is honoring Christina Aguilera with its Ally for Equality award.

The Human Rights Campaign announced Thursday the six-time Grammy-winning singer is a true “LGBTQ icon” who uses her platform to “share a message of hope and inspiration” to those who have been marginalized.

The group says the 38-year-old has raised money to fight HIV/AIDS, advocated marriage equality and spoken out against LGBTQ bullying. The group says Aguilera’s 2002 single “Beautiful” is an empowering LGBTQ anthem.

Aguilera will be honored at the group’s dinner in Los Angeles on March 30.

At the same event, the Human Rights Campaign will present its national leadership award to Yeardley Smith. The actress and producer is best known as the voice of Lisa Simpson.

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