New York, NY
Thank you, Cathy for asking me to join you for this very special evening as we begin a week of engagement around the UN General Assembly.
It’s wonderful to be here with so many colleagues and friends – Rania, Mathilde, Agata, and Philippa serving alongside you as First Lady of the United States is the honor of my life.
I’ve been an educator for 39 years. This past week I started teaching writing at a community college near the White House. So, I’ve seen how one moment can change the trajectory of a student’s learning – when their eyes light up as an idea clicks into place. Education is the key that unlocks the possibilities of the future. It changes lives.
But, in the United States, as in the rest of the world, COVID and its aftermath have had a devasting impact on children’s learning.
I know we all have been working hard to rebuild the systems that were broken, to bring divided communities back together, to put us on a path to a better, brighter future.
Every leader, and every country, must make the world a better place for children.
Children are the smartest investment we can make in eliminating poverty, boosting economic growth, strengthening democracy, and promoting global peace and prosperity.
This is why children must be at the center of the Sustainable Development Goals.
When children are born, we look into their wide eyes and see every possibility.
Infinite dreams. Limitless bounds. As a mother and a nana, I know that feeling well.
But children don’t grow into adults overnight.
Every parent knows that it’s a process – long and winding and sometimes challenging.
When they’re babies, they cry and we meet their needs: food if they’re hungry, sleep if they’re tired, comfort if they’re scared or hurt.
But as they grow, they need schools and educators who can teach them to read and write and think.
And as teens, they need an even larger village: patient ears to listen, strong shoulders to lean on, steady hands to hold and guide them.
They need an education that prepares them for adulthood and the jobs of the future.
It’s a continuum of care and support to ensure that children can grow into healthy and successful adults, so they can create peaceful and stable societies.
Making sure that every child in every corner of the world has access to the support they need to reach their full potential, to thrive, is what UNICEF does.
Cathy, thank you for your leadership and for what you do for children around the world. UNICEF’s work is absolutely critical to making our world safer and more prosperous.
As Second Lady and now as First Lady, I’ve traveled from Latin America to the Middle East, from Asia to Africa, I have seen children and young people in dire circumstances – families displaced by drought, children living in sprawling, urban informal settlements, and children who have survived unspeakable violence.
Yet, despite these truly heartbreaking challenges, I have seen young people who don’t give up, who are optimistic and hopeful and believe that tomorrow will be a brighter day.
Last year, in Ecuador, I talked with teenagers whose families had fled brutal violence in Venezuela, but who dreamed of returning home to rebuild their country.
They were so strong and smart and confident – they were determined to make a difference. And with our help they will.
More than ten years ago, in Kenya, I met a young woman – Aliyah.
At just 25, she was raising a son in a one-room, tin-roof home in Kibera. There was no electricity – no running water. She spent her day teaching girls about teen pregnancy – about sexual abuse and rape. The topic was taboo – but the conversations were powerful.
I asked her if she wanted to leave Kibera. But she said, “No, this is my home. I want to make a difference here.”
Earlier this year, when I returned to Kibera, I met Aliyah again – and I saw her son, now 18, and a young daughter too. All still living in Kibera, where Aliyah now owns and operates a restaurant.
Aliyah continues to make a difference there.
Young people inspire us to greater heights.
They remind us that hope can always overcome cynicism, and that we can achieve anything if we work together.
I know all of you in this room have worked so hard for children and young people across the globe. I know that you’ve given your time, your voice, and your resources.
And I know that despite this, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals has stalled, and the way forward looks steep.
Yet, I also know that you can do miraculous things. In the wake of the pandemic, you operationalized the fastest and largest immunization effort in history. You have nearly eliminated polio across the globe. And, you’ve helped hundreds of millions of out-of-school children continue their education.
And, I promise you that the United States will continue to be a partner with you every step of the way.
The United States has made unprecedented investments in clean technology and delivered more COVID vaccines internationally than any other nation. We have led the fight against HIV/AIDS through PEPFAR, which, in 20 years has saved more than 25 million lives and ensured that 5.5 million babies have been born HIV-free.
And, last year, we made the single largest contribution ever to address acute malnutrition in children – $200 million – and rallied the world to raise an additional half billion dollars.
Those babies we hold just after being born, their eyes wide like saucers, with the tiniest fingers – grow up in a blink of an eye – and they will be our leaders sooner than we think. They will be the ones to keep us out of war.
They will be the ones to cure cancer. They will be the ones who will have to continue fighting climate change.
But they need us – all of us – right now. Yes, young people are our future, but they are also our present. And when we give them the support they need, when we invest in them from the very beginning and every step along the way, we help them become the people they want to be…and they help us build a more peaceful, stable world.
Thank you, UNICEF, for being heroic partners in this effort. Cathy, the President and I miss you in our day-to-day but we know this is the work of your life and we are so grateful for your service.
And thank you, everyone in this room. You’ve saved untold lives. You’ve helped so many children reach for their dreams. But there is more to do, together. And we can’t stop now.