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First Lady Michelle Obama at International Women of Courage Awards

U.S. Department of State



MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you all. Please. Well, good morning. I want to start by thanking my dear friend Ambassador Russell for that very kind introduction and for her phenomenal work as our ambassador for global women’s issues.

And while I know how disappointed Secretary Kerry is to miss this event — by the way, in his busy schedule he tried to call me five times to apologize. (Laughter.) And finally I had to tell him, I know why you can’t make it — (laughter) — stop calling, just do your job. I know how heartbroken he is, but we all know that he is doing vitally important work right now in Ukraine, and we are all so grateful for his outstanding service as our Secretary of State. And in his absence, we are thrilled to have Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom and Dr. Vanessa Kerry. And I also want to recognize their efforts, and I am thrilled that they are here today.

And finally, I want to thank all of you for joining us today for the International Women of Courage Awards. This is the sixth time that I’ve had the pleasure of attending this event, and it is one of the highlights of my year because I always walk away feeling inspired by these women, determined to reflect their courage in my own life. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling because every day, with every life they touch and every spirit they raise, these women are creating ripples that stretch across the globe.

They teach us that if a woman can fight torture and oppression and get her name on the ballot in Tajikistan; if she can break a glass ceiling and advocate for equality and tolerance as a bishop in Georgia; if she can go door to door, police station to police station, court to court to combat domestic and child abuse in Saudi Arabia — if these women can do all of that, then surely we can summon a fraction of their bravery in our own lives and communities — whether that means ending wage discrimination in the workplace, or fighting sexual violence on college campuses, or confronting any of the small injustices that we see every day.

That is what this day is about. It’s about understanding that while our circumstances may be different, in so many ways, the solutions to our struggles are the same. So when we see these women raise their voices and move their feet and empower others to create change, we need to realize that each of us has that same power and that same obligation.

And as I learned about this year’s honorees, and I thought about how we could support their work, I realized that for most of these women, there is a common foundation for their efforts: it’s a foundation of education. On stage today, we have doctors and lawyers, we have a bishop, even a classically trained musician. These women have spent years in schools and universities equipping themselves with the knowledge and skills they now use to tackle the challenges before them. And that’s a story I can relate to because it’s the story of my life.

And that is the message I’m sharing with young people across America, urging them to commit to their education so that they, too, can write their own destiny. That’s the core idea behind our White House Leadership and Mentoring Program. And we are so proud to have some of our mentees here with us today. I’m going to embarrass you all — yes, you must stand — (laughter) — so that we can see our young women who are here today. (Applause.) You know I’m always proud of you. And it’s important, as you know, for you to be at this event to see what’s happening around the world. So welcome.

And as I travel the world, whether I’m in Mexico City or Johannesburg, Mumbai, or later this month when I travel to China, I make it a priority to talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations. I always tell them that getting a good education isn’t just about knowing what’s going on in your own community or even your own country. Because no matter where we live, we all face so many of the same struggles: fighting poverty, hunger, and disease; ensuring our most basic rights and freedoms; confronting threats like terrorism and climate change. And in order to solve these problems, we will need to work with others around the world. So our next generation will need exposure to societies and languages and traditions that are very different from their own.

That message of cultural exchange is the focus of all of my international travel. Because that connection –- the idea that a girl in Dakar shares the same hopes and dreams as a girl from Fiji or Ukraine or the South Side of Chicago –- that reminds us that we’re never alone in our struggles. And that’s what must compel us to reach beyond our own borders, whether that means getting on an airplane, or picking up an iPad, or maybe simply writing a letter.

There is too much work left to be done, too many young people who can’t go to school, too many families struggling to put food on the table, too many women and minorities who are excluded and oppressed. So none of us can afford to just go about our business as usual. We cannot just sit back and think, this is someone else’s problem.

As one of our honorees, Zimbabwe’s Beatrice Mtetwa — as she once said about the fight for progress in her home country, she said: “This has to be done. Somebody’s got to do it, and why shouldn’t it be you?”

That is the courage we celebrate today –- that willingness to not only ask that question but to devote your soul — your entire soul — toward finding an answer, that fearlessness to step forward even though you don’t know what lies ahead, that audacity to believe that principles like justice and equality can become a reality but only if we’re willing to sacrifice for it. That is the courage that we all must challenge ourselves to summon every single day in our own families and our own communities. And if we can do that, then we won’t just be making a difference for those closest to us, we’ll be creating a ripple effect of our own.

So I want to thank these honorees once again for their tremendous bravery, for their efforts, for their courage, for their work to make change in their own lives and communities and throughout the world. I cannot wait to see the impact you will continue to make in the years ahead. God bless you all. (Applause.)

And now, it is my pleasure to turn the podium back over to Ambassador Russell to continue the program.

- Cross posted from whitehouse.gov

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