Speaking as part of the spousal programme of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, Michelle Obama emphasised the need to prioritise women’s rights issues above other major concerns such as famine and disease. She believes the first step in effecting change lies in a global attitude shift in how women and girls are valued.
“Until we value women and girls, we won't tackle those other problems. Until we prioritise our girls and understand that they are as important and that their education is as important as the education of our sons, then we will have lots of work to do," said the First Lady.
Michelle Obama was joined by former First Lady Laura Bush, who seconded her opinion. "Only countries where all people are involved can be successful," said Mrs Bush.
"When we look around the world and see countries where half of the population is marginalised or left out, then we usually see countries that are failing."
Whilst president Obama welcomed leaders from across the African continent in a bid to strengthen ties with the region, the First Lady and her predecessor were confined to speaking to the largely female spouses of the visiting heads of state. However, both women expressed their belief that the position of First Lady is that of a leader in her own right, and encouraged the spouses attending the summit to embrace the platform they have been given.
Obama urged her audience not to “waste” their time in “this spotlight. It is temporary, life is short, and change is needed”. Jokingly, she added: “And women are smarter than men”, which was received with laughter and applause.
Laura Bush has previously hinted that the role of first spouse in the United States may radically change if a woman were to become president; questioning whether a man would stop working “as a lawyer, or whatever” in the event of his wife being elected.
The spousal programme of the US-African Leaders Summit was co-sponsored by the Bush Institute, and brought Obama and Bush on stage together for the second time. Last year they both addressed the wives of African leaders in Tanzania, where they expressed the difficulty of discussing important topics when the media is focusing on their hairstyles.
Michelle Obama’s message to the spouses of Africa’s leaders is a clear one: "We have to fight for our girls." The rest will follow.