The Power of a Woman

I was honored to be in the presence of such powerful women—women whom I, and millions of others around the world, look up to and draw inspiration from. To hear First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and a pair of Nobel Laureates (Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman) speak about the most pressing issues facing women and girls today was far more than a celebrity sighting—it was a call to action. Serving as examples to lead that action were 10 brave women who have risked their lives in advancing women’s rights.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the first to speak, and her introductory statement was simple but powerful: women and girls deserve the same rights as their fathers and brothers. She went on to point out the many benefits of greater freedoms and opportunities for women. Improving the lives of women improves the lives of their families, strengthens their communities, and has been proven to create more opportunities for economic growth and prosperity in different cultural settings around the globe. Also, investing in women’s employment and health leads to healthier children and a better-educated population overall.

First Lady Michelle Obama also gave an inspirational speech, highlighting the 10 women being honored—women who sacrificed their lives by working to expose corruption in their countries and end oppression. These women sometimes endured death threats and horrifying violence. They saw poverty, discrimination and inequality and decided to use their voices and risk their lives to do something about it. Despite all the obstacles these women of courage continue to face, they are still running for office, running organizations, and serving their communities. Young people can look to them as proof that with dedication and drive, you can follow your dreams and make an impact within and beyond your community.

Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee lightened up the room by making all the men shout “Happy International Women’s Day,” saying this is not a day to be “neat” but a day of celebration for all women. She said that it is important for women to speak up for other women and that “no woman should sit down and allow a man to speak about her reproductive rights,” adding that “issues of peace and security should not be left to men alone to work on. […] Women know the context and can contribute as well.”

Fellow Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman gave good advice, saying that all women should trust themselves, be in the front lines, and refuse any back seats. Furthermore, women should struggle for all rights and not just “women’s” rights. Ultimately, equality will serve everyone’s best interests, and men have to work hand-in-hand with women to solve problems.

Below is a list of the 10 “Women of Courage” who were honored, their respective titles, and their countries. They are also photographed with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama.

1. Ms. Maryam Durani, Kandahar Provincial Council Member (Afghanistan)
2. Major Pricilla de Oliveira Azevado, police officer, Rio de Janeiro Military Police (Brazil)
3. Zin Mar Aung, political activist and NGO co-founder (Burma)
4. Ms. Jineth Bedoya Lima, investigative journalist (Colombia)
5. Ms. Hana Elhebshi, architect and political activist (Libya)
6. Ms. Aneesa Ahmed, gender-based violence (GBV) activist and former Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs (Maldives)
7. Ms. Shad Begun, human rights activist and founder/executive director of Anjuman Behbood-e-Khawateen Talah (the Union of Women’s Welfare) (Pakistan)
8. Ms. Samar Badawi, political activist (Saudi Arabia)
9. Ms. Hawa Abdalla Mohammed Salih, human rights activist (Sudan)
10. The Honorable Safak Pavey, Member of Parliament (Turkey)

The positive energy given off by this collection of women and the depth of appreciation that I and those around me felt for their accomplishments was overwhelming. We could easily have devoted a day to celebrating the works of any one of the women who spoke or was honored at this event. As I have stated before though, in the end this was less about a look back at their achievements, and more about the fact that each of us can learn from their examples. Never underestimate the power of a woman.

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