Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean
Speech on the Occasion of International Women’s Day
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Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, March 8, 2007
I can hardly believe I am here with you today, in Afghanistan. I have come a long way to deliver a message of hope to the women of this country.
Let me look at you.
I want to etch this image of you slowly into my memory.
I want this image to stay with me for a long time, and I want to share it everywhere I go as a beacon of hope.
If you only knew how often I cried out with indignation for you when you could not.
If you only knew how often I wished I could do more to free you from your prisons than just cry my helpless tears.
If you only knew how many times I thought about the life you lead, every moment of every day, terrorized and sick with fear.
For me and for so many others, the hand you were dealt was unacceptable.
I am here to tell you that in person.
I myself was born in one of the poorest countries in the Americas, Haiti, at a time when violence and injustice were everyday occurrences.
My mother left that regime of terror behind so that her daughters could grow and thrive in freedom.
We found in Canada a place of unparalleled freedom, and I have made it my mission to defend that freedom vigilantly.
I spent a number of years of my professional career accompanying women who had suffered many forms of violence: physical, psychological, sexual and institutional.
I will never forget the words of those women whose inner flame had been brutally snuffed out and who, little by little, found that spark once again.
Their words of courage lift me up, in good times and in bad.
And I am here today to hear your words.
I am absolutely convinced that women’s participation in the life of cities and villages guarantees progress.
It is very important to me that Afghan women take their rightful place in Afghanistan’s institutions.
In my opinion, the role of Afghan women in Afghanistan’s reconstruction is imperative.
And I am not alone in this opinion, or in saying it out loud.
Earlier, I told President Karzai that women have always understood how precious life is, that their aspirations benefit the whole country, and that the future of Afghanistan depends on them.
Empower women and you will see a decrease in poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence.
Women are the ones who generally take care of children’s health and education.
Women are the ones who instill them with the values of compassion and openness in a world where the warrior instinct still too often prevails.
The battles women have fought and continue to fight to ensure that their rights are respected are in themselves an affirmation of human dignity.
To attack the dignity of women is to fly in the face of life itself; it is to make a mockery of humanity.
I know, I know you face very harsh realities.
I know that some young women see suicide as their only escape from unbearable situations, to the point of setting themselves on fire.
I know that the women of Afghanistan have one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world.
I know that less than 10 per cent of Afghan women give birth with a qualified person present, and that these dangerous conditions are responsible for over 50 per cent of the deaths of Afghan women of child-bearing age.
And as a mother, it pains me to know that the infant mortality rate in Afghanistan is close to 20 per cent.
These are just some of the reasons to honour your efforts and to take action on behalf of Afghan women, while remaining respectful of their needs and aspirations.
And that is why I was so pleased, just now, in the company of Her Excellency Husna Banu Ghazanfar, Minister of Women’s Affairs, to visit a school, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, which provides training opportunities to Afghan women so that they can support themselves and their children with dignity, and help with the advancement of their communities.
I am here to tell you that there is a strong commitment in Canada to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan and to ensure that their voices are heard.
And, finally, my friends, that is why I could not ask for better company on International Women’s Day.
I decided long ago that I would come here on this particular day to show you how much I admire your courage and to tell you that you bring hope to your fellow Afghans and to women around the world.
That, my sisters, is what I see when I look at you.
I stand before you as an ally.
And I am accompanied on this journey by two exceptional women— Dr. June Webber, director of International Policy and Development for the Canadian Nurses Association, and Madame Francine Pelletier, a documentary filmmaker and an engaged feminist—who will help me spread your words.
And I would like to salute the Canadians who bring hope to the Afghan women.
But I have spoken enough.
I would much prefer to hear from you.
And let us not forget, on this festive day, the Tajik proverb— roughly translated—that says “the work of one woman is worth more than the views of one hundred men.”