“No country can flourish if it stifles the potential of its women”: Michelle Obama

“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens”-Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama is an inspiration to girls and women all over the world. She says it like it – coming from a simple upbringing, her comments touch people in a most real way. She talks about how when girls aren’t educated, it renders them more vulnerable to poverty, violence and disease, and limits the potential of their countries and families as well.  She spoke at the summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

While there is a need to address issues such as forming more schools and teachers, allocating more funds for toilets, uniforms, transportation, fess etc…but another prevailing problem when it comes to education for girls is not just resources, but also the fundamental attitudes about girls and women. Whether fathers and mothers consider their daughters to be as worthy of an education as a son or not, whether societies still cling to outdated laws and traditions that oppress and exclude women, or whether they view women as full wholesome citizens entitled to fundamental rights; she asserted, is the game-changer.

Michelle Obama stated that the bigger conversation about how women and girls are being viewed and treated in the world today, is something that we need to have in every continent and in every country of this planet. Michelle expressed that every opportunity that she had had, and her every achievement that she was proud of, had stemmed from a solid foundation of love and experience in her own life. So, it really saddens and confuses her to see- that women in Africa and other parts of the world, are still denied equal rights and opportunities which they deserve to fully realise their potential.

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Even though more girls in Africa are now attending school, more women are starting businesses, maternal mortality has plummeted, and more women are serving in parliament than ever before, (more than 30 percent of legislators in some countries are women, and in Rwanda it’s over 50%, more than double the percentage in US),despite all these achievements, girls in some places are still being married off as children, sometimes even before they reach puberty. Female genital mutilation still continues in some countries. Human trafficking, rape and domestic abuse are still too common, and perpetrators are facing no consequences for their crimes- so clearly there is a lot of work to be done in Africa and the rest of the globe. 

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Michelle Obama asserted that genital cutting, forced child marriage, and domestic violence are not legitimate cultural practices. Rather, they are serious human right violations and there should be no place on Earth for them. She iterated that the future of a country lay in its people- in their talent, ambition and drive. And no country can ever flourish by stifling the potential of its women and depriving itself of the contribution of half its citizens.

Michelle said that a truly strong and powerful man is never threatened by a powerful woman. Rather, he is challenged by her, inspired by her, and pleased to be her equal.  She also said that women often times internalise the oppression that they face by believing in harmful messages about how they should look and act, messages that tell us that women do not deserve full control over our bodies, that they should keep shut and do as they are told. 

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These messages are then imposed by women upon their daughters, some of whom still support genital cutting and insist on marrying off their young daughters or keep them home from school to help with the housework.

She also talked about the subtle harms that we inflict on each other by spurning or criticising those women who dare to defy traditions, simply because we are jealous or suspicious of their courage and freedom, and how we often turn a blind eye when a woman from our own community suffers abuse simply because we do not want to create a conflict with people around us by speaking up.

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Michelle’s most exemplary statement in the speech perhaps was, when she said that leadership is about creating new traditions of honour that would value the humanity of every individual. Leadership is about empowering all people, and when families in small villages around the world begin to demand equal opportunities for their daughters, that is when countries will begin to invest in sending girls to school, because then they would accept how important it is.

Vidhi Bubna is a contributor with SheThePeople.TV