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SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, this is such an exciting occasion, and there were so many people who wanted to come today, but unfortunately, there is a limit to how many people we can let into this magnificent room. So there are people watching on closed-circuit TV all over this building, and beyond.
And it is my pleasure to welcome you to the State Department to celebrate International Women’s Day with a very special event and a very special guest. The event is the International Women of Courage Awards, and in a minute, you will meet these remarkable women and learn more about their lives and their work. And I am especially delighted to thank one person in particular whose presence here means a great deal to all of us – our First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)
Now, I know a little bit about the role that – (laughter) – Michelle Obama is filling now. And I have to say that in a very short time, she has, through her grace and her wisdom, become an inspiration to women and girls not only in the United States, but around the world. And it is so fitting that she would join us here at the State Department to celebrate the achievements of other extraordinary women, and to show her commitment to supporting women and girls around the globe.
She understands, as we all do here at the State Department, that the status of women and girls is a key indicator of whether or not progress is possible in a society. And so I am very grateful to her and to President Obama, who earlier today announced the creation of the White House Interagency Council on Women and Girls. That will – (applause). That office will help us collaborate across every department and agency in our government.
President Obama has also designated an ambassador-at-large to consolidate our work on women’s global issues here at the State Department. Now, this is a position that has never existed before, and I am very pleased that someone you all know, if you have ever worked on women’s issues – know and appreciate a longtime colleague and friend, Melanne Verveer, who’s been nominated to fill that post. (Applause.)
And I also want to thank Ambassador Susan Rice and our excellent U.S. delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which is in the middle of its annual meetings now, for the work that they are doing and for the engagement that they demonstrate.
Today, we’re focusing on the International Women of Courage Awards. It’s a fairly new tradition here at the State Department, but it’s already become a cherished institution. For the past three years, our embassies have sent us stories of extraordinary women who work every day, often against great odds to advance the rights of all human beings to fulfill their God-given potential. Today, we recognize eight of those women. Each is one of a kind, but together they represent countless women and men who strive daily for justice and opportunity in every country and on every continent, usually without recognition or reward.
And I want to say a special word about someone who could not join us, who we honor today – Reem Al Numery, who was forced to marry her older cousin when she was just 12 years old. She is now fighting to obtain a divorce for herself and end child marriage in Yemen. She was not able to be here, but we honor her strength and we pledge our support to end child marriage everywhere, once and for all. (Applause.)
We also express our solidarity with women whose governments have forbidden them from joining us, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been kept under house arrest in Burma for most of the past two decades, but continues to be a beacon of hope and strength to people around the world. Her example has been especially important to other women in Burma who have been imprisoned for their political beliefs, driven into exile, or subjected to sexual violence by the military.
Our honorees and the hundreds of millions of women they represent not only deserve our respect, they deserve our full support. When we talk about human rights, what I think of are faces like these. What I am committed to is doing everything in my power as Secretary of State to further the work on the ground in countries like those represented here to make changes in peoples’ lives. That doesn’t happen always in the halls of government. It happens day to day in the towns and cities, the villages and countryside where the work of human rights goes on.
We simply cannot solve the global problems confronting us, from a worldwide financial crisis to the risks of climate change to chronic hunger, disease, and poverty that sap the energies and talents of hundreds of millions of people when half the world’s population is left behind. The rights of women – really, of all people – are at the core of these challenges, and human rights will always be central to our foreign policy.
Earlier today I met with Foreign Minister Yang of China and conveyed to him, as I do in my meetings with all other leaders, that it is our view in the Obama Administration that every nation seeking to lead in the international community must not only live by, but help shape the global rules that will determine whether people do enjoy the rights to live freely and participate fully. The peace, prosperity and progress that we know are best served and best serve human beings come when there is freedom to speak out, to worship, to go to school, enjoy access to health care, live and work with dignity.
The United States is grounded in these ideals, and our foreign policy must be guided by them. Indeed, our own country must continually strive to live up to these ideals ourselves. Not only does smart power require us to demand more of ourselves when it comes to human rights, but to express those views to others and to actually assist those who are on the frontlines of human rights struggles everywhere.
It is important that we focus on human rights because I know what inspiration it has given to me over many years. The people I have met, they have constantly reminded me of how much work lies ahead if we are to be the world of peace, prosperity and progress that we all seek.
I’ve met a lot of people, particularly women, who have risked their lives – from women being oppressed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, to mothers seeking to end the violence in Northern Ireland, to citizens working for freedom of religion in Uzbekistan, and NGOs struggling to build civil society in Slovakia, to grassroots advocates working to end human trafficking in Asia and Africa, and local women in India and Bangladesh, Chile, Nicaragua, Vietnam and many other places who are leading movements for economic independence and empowerment.
These personal experiences have informed my work. And I will continue to fight for human rights as Secretary of State in traditional and especially non-traditional ways and venues.
All of you gathered here represent the kind of broad coalition that we need – business leaders, NGO leaders, ambassadors, experts, people from every corner of our government, citizens who are moved and touched by the stories of courage that we will be hearing some more of today.
And it is exciting that we have now in our own country someone who is standing up for the best of America, a woman who understands the multiple roles that women play during the course of our lives, and fulfills each one with grace. An example of leadership, service, and strength. It is my great pleasure and honor to introduce the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)