Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the International Women of Courage Awards

March 10, 2010

MRS. OBAMA: Well, thank you. This is indeed a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you today. You all look fabulous. (Laughter.) This is a wonderful occasion.

Let me thank my dear friend, Senator -- Secretary Clinton. (Laughter.) I almost said, "President Clinton." (Laughter and applause.) But let me thank you for that kind introduction, and most of all thank you for your friendship, thank you for your support, and thank you for your indispensable advice in getting me through this first year and helping me figure out how to get my family settled in our new life in D.C.

I think it's fair to say that this woman here set the standard in her last post in a presidential administration -– and she's once again setting a terrific standard doing outstanding work as the Secretary of State for the Obama administration. (Applause.)

I also want to recognize Ambassador Melanne Verveer for her extraordinary work as our Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues. Melanne. (Applause.)

And again I have to thank Andrea Jung and Reese Witherspoon. That's a tremendous contribution on the part of Avon. Thank you for being with us, thank you for your commitment and your dedication and your words here today. It's just an exciting opportunity.

It's hard to believe that it's been 15 years since Secretary Clinton spoke those words that inspired women across the globe to think differently about themselves and about their place in the world, and to demand that others think differently, as well: "Women's rights are human rights" is what she said; the five simple words that weren't just a statement of fact, but a call to action. (Applause.)

And we're here today to honor 10 women who have devoted their lives to answering that call in just tremendous ways.

You've heard about them, but, again, there's Ann Njogu who left a comfortable job as chief legal officer at an insurance company because she couldn't bear to stand silent in the face of corruption and violence against women in Kenya. And even after being arrested and assaulted by the police because of her work, she continues to speak out.

Then there's Colonel Shafiqa Quraishi of Afghanistan who began her career with the Afghan National Police. And today, as an official in the Ministry of the Interior, she's fighting to ensure that women in the police force get the promotions they deserve and that women get the benefits they need to do their jobs.

And then there's Dr. Lee Ae-ran who spent eight years of her childhood in a North Korean prison camp. And after a harrowing escape to South Korea, she became a tireless advocate for North Korean refugees and the first defector to run for Korea's National Assembly. (Applause.) Upon receiving an award for her work, she replied, very simply, "I was only doing what I was naturally supposed to do."

These are the kind of battles that women we honor here are fighting all over the world. They're educating girls. They're getting more women into the workforce. They're working to end human trafficking, labor abuses, discrimination against minorities. And they're giving women a voice in the courtrooms and in the parliaments, helping to change laws and transform lives in every corner of the globe.

Now, there are certainly easier paths these women could have taken. Much easier. They could have chosen to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. They could have shrunk their aspirations to fit the expectations of others -– and accepted the place reserved for them on the sidelines and in the shadows.

But instead, they decided to stand up for what they believed in and for what they hoped. They decided to say the things that no one else would say and take risks few others would endure. As a result, they've faced hardships that few could bear.

Jestina Mukoko of Zimbabwe was abducted from her home, she was tortured, she was interrogated for hours while forced to kneel on gravel –- all for the simple act of speaking out about the government's human rights abuses. Yet, she emerged unbroken. And as she put it, "I came out of this experience not a bitter person, but a better person." That is the thread -- (applause) -- that's the thread that runs through all of our honorees' stories –- that ability to draw strength from suffering, the determination to not just advance their own lives, but the lives of others, as well.

That's what makes these women so extraordinary -– that they not only refuse to be victims of injustice and oppression, they also refuse to be bystanders.

And that's one of the reasons why we've invited some young women to join us today -- the young women from the White House girls mentoring program, along with young women from the Bell Multicultural School, to join us today. Okay, ladies, raise your hand. Let's see where you are. (Applause.)

You're here for a reason. We love you dearly, but we also want you to learn from these women, and we want you to be inspired by these women's lives. So listen carefully. Listen to their stories. We invited them because we wanted to say to these young girls -- to you, young women, like so many girls across the country -- that if these women can become lawyers and journalists and military leaders, if they can run their own organizations and run for office -– then surely you can find a way to follow your own dreams and be the leaders in your own communities right here in America. That's what we expect from you. (Applause.)

Listen closely, because if these women can endure relentless threats, brutal violence, and separation from their families as they fight for their causes –- then surely, you all can keep going when you face struggles and obstacles in your own lives.

If these women can start developing their passion for justice as teenagers, if Sonia Pierre could stand up and protest and demand better conditions for migrant workers at the age of 13 –- an act for which she was arrested -- (applause) -- then none of you are too young to start making a difference. Right? (Applause.)

And if these women can make so many sacrifices to help so many people –- then the least we all can do in this room, in this country is to shine a light on their work and honor their contributions. (Applause.)

That is the purpose of these Women of Courage awards. We know the difference this kind of recognition and encouragement can make. It really matters.

I'm thinking of a story that I heard, of Ginetta Sagan, a human rights activist who was first imprisoned during World War II for helping Jews in Italy escape from the Nazis. And during her time in jail, she was brutally beaten, raped and tortured with electric shocks. And then one day, one of the guards threw a loaf of bread into her cell. And inside that loaf was a matchbox. And on that matchbox was written the word -- one word in Italian -- "corragio" -– and it was courage. Ginetta spent the rest of her life working to free prisoners of conscience. And every time she came across prisoners who had started to lose hope because they feared that no one knew of their plight, she thought of that moment in that cell.

And so today, we say to you women, our sisters, we say "corragio" -- courage. (Applause.) America stands with you. We are so incredibly proud of you and your contributions. And know that we are praying for you and we are thinking about you every day. And we have young women here who are going to follow in your footsteps. Right, ladies? (Applause.)

Thank you all so much. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the International Women of Courage Awards Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320617

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