Speaking to a packed auditorium in Madrid, US First Lady Michelle Obama on Thursday requested a global cultural change to fight gender inequality.
The event capped a three-nation trip to raise awareness about the plight of millions of girls who are denied access to education across the world. Before Spain, Obama visited Liberia and Morocco to promote her Let Girls Learn campaign.
The First Lady spoke inside the cultural center Matadero de Madrid, where there was a majority of young women in the crowd. Many of them were high school and university students who had waited in line since 8am for a chance to hear Obama’s speech, which she delivered at 11am.
Sitting in the crowd was Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena, who gave the First Lady a necklace shaped like the Madrid skyline; acting deputy prime minister Soraya Sáez de Santamaría; the government delegate in Madrid, Concepción Dancausa; and US Ambassador James Costos.
Michelle Obama said she was honored by the presence of Spain’s Queen Letizia, and reminded the women in the audience that “you all are so fortunate to live in a country that gives you so many opportunities to learn and to follow your dreams for your lives and for your careers.”
The First Lady noted that “more than 62 million girls worldwide -– girls who are just as smart and talented as all of you -– can’t develop their full potential because they don’t have the chance to attend school. And that doesn’t just affect their life’s prospects, it affects the prospects of their families and their countries, and it affects all of you and your country as well.”
To illustrate her point, the First Lady talked about her recent visits to Liberia and Morocco, where she met with teenage girls who work by day and study by night to fulfill their dreams of going to college and becoming nurses, secretaries or schoolteachers.
“And that’s part of the reason why I’m here today in Spain after my visit this week to two countries in Africa, Liberia and Morocco, where many girls struggle every day to get an education. It is my hope that sharing their stories of struggle and triumph will inspire you and young women like you around the world to advocate for change,” she added.
But Michelle Obama also warned that gender inequality is not limited to developing countries like the ones she has just visited. Although progress has been made – she noted the fact that a woman now stands a chance of becoming the next president of the United States – “changes in our laws haven’t always translated to changes in our cultures.”
Using herself as an example, she said that “the minute I graduated, suddenly everyone was asking me, well, when are you going to get married and start having kids?’”
This culture of inequality is detrimental to both men and women, she added. “When a father gets home from a long day of work and changes a diaper, he’s practically considered a hero. But when a woman changes a diaper, no one really notices because that’s what’s expected of her as a mother, even if she works outside of the home.”
A lawyer by trade, Michelle Obama asked societies “not just to change laws, but hearts and minds as well,” and encouraged parents to let their girls study math and play soccer like the boys.
The First Lady of the United States ended her speech with words of friendship for Queen Letizia.
“Like me, Queen Letizia is the mother of two beautiful daughters, and we’ve had the opportunity to bond over many issues, including the joys and the challenges of raising strong, smart, outspoken girls. And I think that our warm friendship very much reflects the close relationship between our two nations,” she said.
Queen Letizia gave a speech of her own in English and Spanish defending the work carried out by the Spanish Cooperation Agency to empower women in developing countries.
After the event, Michelle Obama, her mother and her two daughters were taken to the royal residence in La Zarzuela for lunch. There they met King Felipe VI and Princesses Leonor and Sofía. The queen gave the US First Lady two glass bottles featuring reproductions of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, whose 500th anniversary is being observed this year at the Prado Museum.
English version by Susana Urra.