I’m so overwhelmed walking around the room, looking at this, seeing you, having gotten here finally with the work of all of my colleagues… with everyone who has worked so hard… I’m really overwhelmed, in a good way.
Thank you very much, Varina, for that warm welcome. I am deeply honored to be here on such an important occasion… with my colleagues from the Office of Global Women’s issues… with Rina Amiri, U.S. Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights… with Assistant Secretary Michele Sison… and of course, with Seema and Stephanie Sinclair. Seema Rezai, I’m not going to challenge you, I’m going to be very careful. I’m in awe of your talent as well. And Stephanie for your extraordinary photography and those of all the photographers here. Really incredible, remarkable advocates for women and girls.
Ten years ago today, today, representatives from countries around the world gathered at the United Nations to celebrate the first International Day of the Girl. But on that day, their thoughts were 7,000 miles away—with a young girl lying in a hospital bed in Pakistan. She had been shot, just two days earlier, while riding her bus to school. She had been shot because she had spoken out about her passion for education, for learning, for being… and became a symbol for a very simple idea… that girls everywhere should have the chance to study so that they can live up to their full potential.
Thankfully, the future Nobel Laureate Malala Yousufzai fought her way back to full health—I had the privilege of meeting her and working with her when I was teaching at Harvard—I just called her Malala. And she is fighting for girls to this very day. But for every Malala, there are millions of girls who never get to tell their stories… who never get to study… who experience gender-based violence and food insecurity and countless other barriers to their empowerment. As we gather here today, as you all know best of all, an estimated one million Afghan schoolgirls are blocked from attending school—despite repeated Taliban assurances that schools would reopen—and they stand as a testament to that tragic reality. I should note that just before this gathering the Secretary just announced a new visa restriction policy for those who deny Afghan women and girls their rights.
Walking around this exhibit, as I said, I want to thank all the photojournalists who contributed—I am particularly struck by the incredible range of challenges facing girls today. The photographs here show the perils of child marriage, of acid attacks, of climate change, of COVID-19. Collectively, they show the minefield that so many girls today are trying to navigate.
Again not in my remarks but I cannot help but recall when Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State and she and I visited the Peshawar refugee camp, the first time the Taliban drove women and girls out of Afghanistan. She and I were able to meet with women and girls because we were women and we were allowed to meet with them. And at the time my own girl—my daughter—was a teenager and a teenager her age told the story of watching her sister be raped and tossed out of a window. I could hardly manage the rest of the day.
But their destination of all of these girls, of all of these women, is clear. “Woman. Life. Freedom.” is the slogan being chanted on the streets of Tehran, of Isfahan, of Shiraz… and in dozens of other Iranian cities. In the weeks since Mahsa Amini’s death, I’ve been so struck by the courage of the Iranians who have taken to the streets and taken to the streets and taken to the streets—and particularly by the women and the girls. It’s clear Iranians see themselves in Mahsa… they see their sisters, their daughters, their granddaughters. And in her tragic, senseless death—and the death of other women and girls in the custody of a so-called “morality police”—they see what can happen when a system that denies women equal rights is taken to the extreme.
When I talk about equal opportunity for women and girls—which I try to do everywhere I travel and every day here in this Department—I always do start from a place of humility. That’s because we, too, in the United States have a long way to go. Girls, particularly girls of color, face discrimination and violence in every sphere. Black women and girls in America experience higher rates of rape and sexual assault. Native American women and girls —we just had Indigenous People’s Day—are disproportionately the victims of femicide and are more than twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than the general population. These numbers are staggering. We can and we must do better.
So, we have our work cut out for us—around the world and here at home—and there is an urgent need for greater protections.
President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Secretary Blinken understand this. That’s why the President and Vice President set gender equality as a priority on their first day in office… and why they launched the first-ever United States National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality. And later this year, we will update our U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. These documents are important, critically important—as a continuation of our national journey toward justice and equality—and as a means to advance prosperity, stability, and security all over the world.
We are also improving our coordination with partner governments. In July, the White House hosted a Trilateral Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls with Mexico and Canada, along with Indigenous leaders from all three countries. We reaffirmed our joint commitment to work together—to work in partnership with Indigenous peoples—to address the root causes that put people at greater risk of gender-based violence.
We, the United States, are the world’s largest donor to multilateral organizations—and their efforts to support women. That includes investments in UNICEF, in UN Women, and in countless other programs, partnerships, and organizations committed to women and girls.
While this all reflects our commitment to fight for progress, the photographs in this room show us how far we have to go. The stories of Iranian women, of Afghan women, of Ukrainian women, of women in every city and every country—every city, every country, every community—on this planet…they all show us how far we have to go. I take them, I take these stories, we all should, as a personal challenge, and I hope they make you feel the same way.
Malala once said, “I know the power that a young girl carries in her heart when she has a vision and a mission.” It’s now our mission—our responsibility, all of the people we work with whom we work, wherever we work, whatever we do—to unlock that power for millions of girls around the world as they work to do so for themselves. Thank you.