June 22, 2011 / 10:38 AM / 9 years ago

Michelle Obama urges Africa to advance women's rights

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama urged young Africans on Wednesday to fight for women’s rights and battle the stigma of AIDS, using her husband’s “yes, we can” campaign slogan to motivate youth across the continent.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (R) chats with Antoinette Sithole, sister of Hector Pietersen, before laying a wreath at the Hector Pietersen Memorial in Soweto, June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Obama is on her second solo trip abroad as first lady to promote issues such as education, health and wellness.

But her speech to a group of young women and men at Regina Mundi Church, which played a role in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, touched on much harder topics: race, discrimination, democracy and development.

Obama, who is traveling with her mother and two daughters, cited the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States as examples for the younger generation to follow.

“It is because of them that we are able to gather here today...It is because of them that I stand before you as First Lady of the United States of America,” she said to applause.

“That is the legacy of the independence generation, the freedom generation. And all of you — the young people of this continent — you are the heirs of that blood, sweat, sacrifice and love.”

Obama appeared visibly moved when the audience stood and sang an impromptu serenade as she approached the podium. Placing her hands over her heart, she thanked the crowd and seemed to choke back tears.


She spoke passionately about women’s rights, saying the young leaders should ensure that women were no longer “second class citizens” and that girls were educated in schools.

“You can be the generation that stands up and says that violence against women in any form, in any place, including the home — especially the home — that isn’t just a women’s rights violation. It’s a human rights violation,” she said.

“You can be the generation that ends HIV/AIDS in our time, the generation that fights not just the disease, but the stigma of the disease, the generation that teaches the world that HIV is fully preventable and treatable, and should never be a source of shame,” she said to applause.

Obama was introduced by Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife. She and her family met Mandela at his home on Tuesday.

Mrs. Obama said she told Mandela that he had been an inspiration to her and her husband, the first black president of the United States.

“I told him that words can’t express how much your life has meant to who my husband is and who I am,” she said.

“You know what he said? ‘OK, thanks,’” she continued, laughing.

“There’s nothing new I can say to Nelson Mandela. But I felt good about being able to just say: ‘This is your legacy’.”

The first lady said President Obama had not known whether she would meet with Mandela.

“I still haven’t talked to the president,” Mrs. Obama said on Wednesday afternoon. “He talked to the kids last night. I was tired.”

She used her husband’s famous campaign slogan, which helped him win the 2008 presidential election, to urge the church audience to follow through on the issues she addressed.

“If anyone ever tells you that you shouldn’t or you can’t, then I want you to say with one voice — the voice of a generation — you tell them: “Yes, we can.”

Editing by Marius Bosch and Alistair Lyon

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