Editor’s Note: Remarks By The First Lady At The International Women Of Courage Awards
U.S. State Department Washington, D.C,
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you all. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Rest yourselves.
Good morning. It is a true pleasure to be here with all of you. This is one of the most important events that I do each year, and I am grateful to be here again. I will be here next year and the year after that and after that and after that. (Laughter.) Yeah! (Applause.)
But I want to start by thanking my friend, Secretary Clinton, not just for that very kind and generous and warm and heartfelt introduction, but she is one heck of a Secretary of State. (Applause.) She has been an amazing gift, not just to our country but to the rest of the world. We are thrilled that she is part of this administration. But more importantly, I want to thank her for her kindness, for her friendship, for her support, for her advice, not just to me but to my family, just figuring out how to negotiate this interesting life here in Washington, D.C. (Laughter.) She has been a true friend, and for that we should give her all another big round of applause. (Applause.)
I also want to thank Madam Prime Minister for joining us and for hanging out with my husband yesterday — (laughter) — and for all of your work. We look forward to coming to see you soon, hopefully. But that’s not up to me. (Laughter.) People like Secretary Clinton. (Laughter.)
Ambassador Melanne Verveer, thank you as well for your work. Cherie Blair, it’s wonderful to see you as well. Thank you for being here. And to Lloyd Blankfein, you’re holding your own as the man in the chair. (Laughter.) Thank you so much for your hard work and for everything that you all are doing to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.
I have to take a privilege — I did this last year — I want to recognize some young women who are here again this year. And they are my young mentees, the White House mentees who are here in the front row. You guys have to stand up. I know, it’s embarrassing. (Applause.)
These young women we have spent a good while with. You guys can sit down now. (Laughter.) You look good. But they have been our shadows for a good year or so. We’ve watched them grow and mature, and we are just so proud of them. Many of them are headed off to college, but we will be staying in touch. But it’s important for me to make sure they’re here at this event, to really understand the power of service and sacrifice and what it means to be a real woman in the world, leading and taking risks. So I want you all to keep your ears open and to take some good notes, because this is really a special event and we’re glad you all are here.
Most of all, I want to recognize the extraordinary Women of Courage that we’re here to honor today. These women are amazing. They are trailblazing leaders. We have the first female head of state in Central Asia; the only female Roma Member of Parliament in Hungary; the first female Prosecutor General in Afghanistan.
They are activists. They are truth-tellers.
We have a teacher who empowers women and girls in rural villages. We have a leader for democratic reform who started her work at the age of 14. There’s a journalist and a blogger who writes the stories no one else will write; lawyers who take cases that no one else will take, who represent victims that no one else will help.
But while they come to us from all different corners of the globe, and they’ve taken a whole wide range of different paths to this moment, they are here today because each of them at some point made a decision. At some point each of them decided that she simply could not carry on in the face of an injustice. She decided that she could no longer accept discrimination or corruption. She could no longer stand silent in the face of violence or oppression, poverty or inequality. And so each, in her own way, decided to act. They decided to speak up, to publish an article, to file a lawsuit, to run for office, to open a school. And they have done these things at great tremendous risk to themselves and to their families. They’ve received death threats. They have been beaten, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured.
One, as Secretary Clinton mentioned, has even had her house bombed, and must now home-school her children out of fear for their safety. She’s now accompanied by armed guards everywhere she goes. But as Maria Bashir put it, simply, “If we women do not accept risks and work, no changes will happen.” So these women have accepted these risks. They have worked for change. And time and again, these women have discovered a very simple truth: that courage can actually be contagious.
It wasn’t long before Yoani Sanchez’s blog had caught fire on the Internet and was being downloaded onto computer flash drives and passed from person to person. When it was censored by the state, she continued her blog through what she calls a “citizen network” — a network of people outside of Cuba who helped publish her posts. Her writing is now translated into 15 languages. Fifteen.
After being forced into marriage when she was just 12 years old, Ghulam Sughra became the first woman in her village to be divorced. As a result, she was considered an outcast. But, as she put it, she said, “Something got into my head and turned my nerves to steel.” And she went on to not just become the first woman in her village to graduate from high school, but to help countless other girls and women get an education of their own.
That is the thread that runs through all of these women’s stories –- that each time these women speak up they inspire others to use their own voices. Their fearlessness inspires others to overcome their own fears. And so soon, “citizen networks” emerge, eager for change. Soon, it’s possible to rewrite laws, to topple regimes, to transform people’s lives.
And true, this is difficult and dangerous work. And as we all know, change is often slow and incremental. And many of these women know that the fruits of their labors will not be seen during their lifetimes. Yet they continue on, because they know that while they may not achieve the progress they seek for themselves, they’re paving the way to a better life for their daughters and granddaughters, and for their sons and grandsons, too.
So they keep on going despite the hardships they face, and despite the fear they must feel. And they do it with such passion, with such determination, with such joy and pride.
I think that Jianmei Guo described it well in a statement that she said and her team published after they faced a setback in their work last year. They wrote -– and this is a quote: “The meaning of life is about keeping our feet on the ground, undeterred, and making our way toward our ideals. We have no complaints. We have no regret. We thank every entity and every friend who cares for us and supports us. We have you, who will walk with us.”
And in the end, that’s why we are all here today. We’re here today because of that. That’s why we hold this event every year here in America’s capital. We do this to send a clear message to all of you, our Women of Courage, and to women like you around the world that you are never alone in your struggle. America will continue to walk with you. People everywhere who care about freedom and justice and equality will walk with you.
And so today, we honor you for your courage, your passion and your commitment. And we look forward to all that you will continue to achieve in the months and years ahead.
God bless you all. Thank you. Thank you so much. (Applause.)