Melania Trump makes case for women's 'empowerment'

First Lady Melania Trump recognises 12 women from around the world for the International Women of Courage Award.
Melania Trump honours human rights activist Fadia Najib Thabet of Yemen during the International Women of Courage ceremony.
Melania Trump honours human rights activist Fadia Najib Thabet of Yemen during the International Women of Courage ceremony.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - First Lady Melania Trump made the case for women’s “empowerment” at a ceremony on Wednesday (March 29) honouring a dozen women activists who overcame great odds to advance human rights around the world.

In a rare public speech, Melania Trump called for an embrace of diversity, appearing as a “special guest” at the International Women of Courage event at the US State Department.

“We must begin now to challenge old fears, and fight for justice and stand up against evil and injustice wherever it may be,” she said in a tribute to the 13 women honorees, all but one of whom were present.

“As leaders of our shared global community, we must continue to work towards gender empowerment and respect for people from all backgrounds and ethnicities, remembering always that we are all ultimately members of one race, the human race.”

The First Lady’s vocal support of diversity appeared somewhat at odds with the stance of President Donald Trump’s administration, whose “America first” worldview has often cast outsiders as a threat.

Three of the honorees were from countries targeted by Trump’s thwarted travel ban on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority nations: Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Praising the strength and courage of the laureates who have fought against gender bias and discrimination, Melania Trump said it is women like them who will “ignite a global battle against inhumanity.”

“Together, with the international community, the United States must send a clear message that we are watching,” she said.

President Trump’s military-dominated budget blueprint, however, calls for State Department funding to be slashed by a third, with “soft” aid programmes that promote democracy and human rights seen as under threat.

WOMEN WARRIORS

Wednesday’s honorees included Sharmin Akter, a 17-year-old high school student in Bangladesh who at 15 filed charges against her own family and successfully defied their plan to marry her to a much older man.

Malebogo Molefhe of Botswana, a former basketball player who is confined to a wheelchair after being shot eight times by an ex-boyfriend, advocates for survivors of gender-based violence.

In war-torn Syria, Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh runs a nursery school and a tailoring workshop for women, serving both Muslims and Christians.

Trump has until now largely shunned the traditional role of first lady, staying at her home in New York’s Trump Tower with her young son Barron while her husband works from the White House.

The former model is so low-profile that a paparazzo in New York called her, in an interview with the Washington Post, “the great white whale.” She is expected to move to Washington once Barron finishes the school year and has said she will use her position in the East Wing to campaign against cyber bullying.

On Monday, the White House announced that deputy press secretary Stephanie Grisham would join the First Lady’s office as communications director. Grisham handled travelling press during President Trump’s campaign.

She joins a small team that includes chief of staff Lindsay Reynolds and senior adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a long-time friend and former Vogue events director.

With her roots in the fashion world, Melania Trump’s clothing choices are closely scrutinised and on Wednesday she stunned in a cream coloured, calf length coat-dress paired with stiletto heels that left her towering over several of the honorees.